If you thought that the UK general election was a drawn out affair, steel yourself now. The next US presidential election won’t be held until November 2016, but the parties are already in election mode. Why? Because before the campaign-proper starts next year, candidates have to compete in primaries to win the nomination to be their party’s presidential nominee. Effectively, a successful candidate has to win not one but two elections.
Primaries are complicated affairs contested on a state-by-state basis, where candidates compete for the state’s delegates at the nominating convention. Some states have closed primaries, in which only registered partisans can vote; others have open primaries, which give everyone a say – even members of the opposing party. And then there are the caucuses, which are basically more deliberated primaries. The caucuses and primaries of each state happen at various times, so the game becomes about momentum. Doing well early on in Iowa and New Hampshire is a good sign, but is no guarantee of success if the candidate’s support burns out or the campaign is mismanaged. Once the parties in each state have voted, they go to their respective conventions, where the candidates with the most delegates wins. Well, normally. Occasionally a new entry or a drop out will shake up the convention and massive horse-trading for votes will ensue. If this all sounds complicated, it is (I can only recommend watching season 6 of the West Wing).
So for the next few months, expect to hear an awful lot about the primaries. The parties couldn’t be in more different situations if they tried. The Democrats so far have four candidates (it is unlikely that any more will enter the race) and, barring major upset, will nominate Hilary Clinton. The Republican field, by contrast, just keeps expanding. So far, 11 people have declared their entrance, with a further 4 possibly preparing to do so. And there is no telling who will eventually win. Obviously, some of them are complete no-hopers (who on earth is George Pataki?) but there are several who could plausibly be nominated, ranging from Jeb Bush to Marco Rubio to Rand Paul.
Of course, the identities of the two nominees will shape the race in profound ways. But the fact is that any Democrat – from the moderate Clinton to the eccentric and self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders to the anyone-but-Hilary Martin O’Malley – is better than the most moderate Republican. Jeb Bush may wish you to believe that he occupies the centre ground, but he is in fact more socially conservative than his brother and father, the George Bushes. Marco Rubio is a darling of the Tea Party and Rand Paul intends to decimate the federal government he wishes to head. Give me Sanders any day.
Yet Sanders is unelectable in a country without a socialist tradition, and the Democrats are not crazy enough to nominate him. The best he can hope to do is pull the other candidates to the left on some key issues. O’Malley, too, can’t be president, if only because he’s too dull. The other Democratic candidate, Lincoln Chafee is unheard of and, well, used to be a Republican. And so we are left with Hilary.
We could do a lot worse. Admittedly, she presents some issues, from her hawkish views on foreign policy to the air of scandal which follows her around, whether on Benghazi or the Whitewater fiasco. Her claims to represent the middle-class are more than a little awkward when she is so wealthy. She is too close to Wall St, but what American politician doesn’t have undesirable ties to big business? The crucial fact is that she is the only Democrat with a solid chance of winning the White House. A CNN poll puts her 10 solid points above any potential Republican challenger, the kind of lead usually unheard of (Obama won by 4% of the popular vote in 2012).
So we have to forgive her faults and get behind her now, which it seems most people on the left are doing. Sanders, O’Malley and Chafee’s task now is to help keep her honest and engaged, not to pull her to a left-wing position from which she cannot win. With the Republican Party holding the positions it holds, in 2016, any Democrat will do. And that Democrat has to be Hilary.