Some details about the US election campaign.

Coverage of the US election in NZ is pretty bad. The local media pundits are shallow at best and take their lead from US cable news services. The best analyses are either reprints or canned footage from US media outlets or in local political blogs (save the rabid frothing on certain reactionary outlets).

Since I get to vote in the elections I follow them pretty closely. Also, having been  based in the US for the twenty years prior to my arrival in NZ, I have practical experience with them, to including voting in 6 states. Because the coverage in NZ is sketchy on certain key details and because it follows the crude narrative of the Yank media, I figured I would offer a short primer on some key details leading up to the Republican and Democratic conventions in a few months.

Open versus closed primaries. 

Primary elections are held in all 50 states and US territories during presidential election years in order to award delegates to candidates pursuing the presidential nomination of their respective parties. The amount of delegates is based upon the number of registered members of a party in a given state, divided among the number of congressional districts in that state. In some states the awarding of delegates is a winner take all affair, while in others it is proportional to the number of votes each candidate receives out of the total number of people voting in a party’s’ primary. In some states there are caucuses instead of primaries, which are more consultative and informal than elections and offer greater leeway in delegate selection and commitment to candidates. Of course, like so much else in US elections, there is a fair bit of gerrymandering and dubious exchanges involved in delegate apportionment, but the general principle is as outlined.

In “closed” primaries only registered supporters of a given party may vote in that party’s primary. That forces voters to declare a preference in advance of the primary. The time frame for registering a party preference in order to be eligible to vote varies from state to state. For example, in Florida, where I am registered to vote, a person must register at least 60 days before the primary election. In New York the registration deadline is six months before the primary election date.

In closed primaries independent voters must either declare a party preference by the official registration deadline or else they are excluded from voting in the primary. This is important because the majority (40 percent) of US voters declare themselves to be Independents (the Democrats and GOP get around 29 percent and 27 percent of all registered voters). The motive for holding closed primaries is twofold: to suppress the vote in order to eliminate uncertainties on election day (since most independents either do not or cannot vote in party primaries); and to thereby allow the most committed party supporters to determine who the winning candidate will be. Although much attention has been directed at Trump and Sander’s complaints about the delegate selection process and inability of independents to vote, respectively, the hard fact is that both the Democratic Party and GOP try to control the primary voting process via closed elections in most states. The Democratic and Republican National Committees co-ordinate (some would say conspire) with state and local party officials to add just enough opaqueness to the process so that electoral uncertainty is limited while the appearance of free and fair elections is maintained.

In “open” primaries voters do not have to register prior to the election date. They can simply declare a party preference on election day or shortly before the election, the walk into the voting station with the voting papers of the party they have chosen. The only requirement for voting is that they show proof of residence in a given state. This allows independent voters to often have a decisive impact on the outcome and leads to greater amounts of strategic voting. For instance, when I lived in Virginia and later in Arizona, which were open primary states during the times I lived there, I would often vote in the Republican primary in order to vote for the most troglodyte candidate on the ballot. My hope was that in doing so I would help said candidate win the nomination because he (it was always a he) was unelectable in the general election. Unfortunately that did not always happen, but you get the general idea.

“Open” primaries are often a better indication of general election outcomes because they are less dominated by internal party logics and less “controllable” by party bosses. Conversely, “closed” primaries tend to reflect better the desires of committed party voters, something that may or may not be translatable into general election victories.

Another important thing to remember is not so much the percentages of the vote won by each candidate but the total number of votes registered for each party in a given primary. For example, in the recent “closed” New York primary the total GOP vote was around 800,000 whereas the Democratic vote was close to 1.8 million (that is, more than double the Republican vote). In conservative rural states such as those of the Midwest and South (the so-called red states), the numbers for each party are reversed (and much lower in aggregate). So a candidate winning by huge margins in party primaries that have significantly fewer voters than the opposition is no sure bet to go on and win a general election.

It is useful to keep this statistic in mind when projecting out to the general election. For example, it does not matter if Trump wins 80 percent of the GOP vote in a primary in which the GOP receives less than half of the total number of votes than that received by the Democratic Party candidates because come general election day his numbers will have to bolstered by a huge amount of independent votes (who are allowed to vote in general elections for whomever they prefer). Since most Independents tend to vote Democratic in general elections, that means that not only will he have to have a historic turn out by Republican voters in his favour (again, at just 27 percent of the general electorate), but he will also have to overcome a deeply rooted historic Independent voting trend if he is to win. That is a big ask.

Brokered or Contested Conventions.

Most national party conventions in US presidential election years are more a coronation than a nomination. Usually the preferred candidate has the winning threshold of delegate numbers pretty much in hand by May or early June, so the conventions (which are always held in July or early August in order to be able to dedicate at least three months to the national campaign) are mere formalities that have become increasingly garish and circus-like in recent years. Long on style and short on substance, these uncontested conventions are designed to show party unity and promote patriotic appeal in the eyes of uncommitted voters.

“Brokered” or “contested” conventions are a whole other kettle of fish. In these type of conventions no candidate has the winning number of delegates on the day the convention opens. That leads to a series of ballots amongst delegates until one candidate emerges with a 50 percent plus one vote majority. The first ballot is a so-called “loyalty” ballot in which delegates vote for whom they are pledged to (the saying is that you vote for the person who brought you to the big dance). Since the first ballot only serves to confirm the lack of a delegate majority by any candidate, then a subsequent round of balloting occurs until a majority candidate is decided upon. That is where things get interesting because after the first loyalty ballot delegates are released from their pledges and can support whomever they think has the best chance of winning the general election (or at least presumably that is the logic at play. It is entirely possible that some delegates may play to lose by selecting an unelectable presidential candidate in order to eliminate him or her from party politics after the defeat).

Balloting continues until a candidate is selected. That not only brings intra-party conflicts out into the open. It also is where the backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms, the backstabbing, horse trading and sausage-making all come into play. It is an ugly process that often leads the winning candidate battered and bruised rather than sanctified, which in turns leads to a weakened position heading into the general election–something the opposing party candidate will pounce on.

If I recall correctly, the last brokered convention was in 1979, when Ted Kennedy challenged sitting president Jimmy Carter at the Democratic convention. Carter won the party nomination, only to be trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election. As people noted at the time, if an incumbent president could be challenged at his own party convention, why should voters think that he was worth re-electing?

Brokered or contested elections are bad news for the parties in question. That is why both the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) are doing everything they can to derail the campaigns of the two “outsiders” in the race, Sanders and Trump. Remember that Bernie Sanders has never been a Democrat. From his days as mayor of Burlington, Vermont to his Senate career, he ran and served as an Independent until the time he entered the Democratic presidential nomination campaign. The DNC fears and loathes him, a sentiment made worse by the fact that he has derailed what was supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s inevitable and uncontested  march to the presidency. Now, the path to coronation is not so certain. Clinton needs to win 66 percent of the remaining delegates in order to secure the nomination. With states like California, Oregon, Maryland and Pennsylvania still in play, that task is not going to be easy. Even if she does win enough delegates to secure the nomination before the convention (and the selection of special interest group “super delegates” was designed to ensure that), she will have to make concessions to Sanders’ policy platform if she is to retain the support of his followers (who otherwise will not vote for her even if they fear a Trump or Cruz presidency). This complicates things for her as well as for her largest patrons, since Bernie has his sights firmly focused on Wall Street and other corporate lobbies like Big Phrama that have donated massively to her campaign. And if Clinton does not secure 66 percent of the remaining delegates, then a contested convention is in her future.

As for Trump, well, he is the fly in the RNC ointment. If he gets the necessary amount of delegates by the time of the convention, then the GOP will be forced by their own rules to award him the nomination. If that happens there is some talk of the GOP running an “independent” candidate against him so as to distance their brand from his name in an election that they expect to lose.

If Trump does not secure the necessary number of delegates before the convention, then a brokered convention is likely. The RNC both fears and wants that to happen. Fears, because it most likely will lead to defeat in November. Wants, because it could be the only way to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. If the convention is brokered or contested it is probable that Trump will be denied the nomination in favour of a “compromise” candidate even if he has the most delegate votes in the first round of balloting.  If so, it is likely that he will not go quietly and may mount his own “independent” campaign. Either way, the GOP is doomed in the general election because whoever runs an independent campaign on the Right will divide conservative voters and forfeit the chance of success against Hillary (with or without Bernie’s supporters).

Trump displays his lack of political understanding when he rails about delegate selection and how the person who gets the most GOP votes nation-wide should win the nomination. He fails to understand that, as with the Electoral College and the Senate, delegate selection is specifically designed to put the brakes on demagogic or populist appeals and mass influence over party politics. Moreover, he claims that even if he comes up short (say, by a hundred or less delegates out of the 1237 needed to win the nomination), as the leader in pledged delegates entering the convention he should be given the nomination much in the way a conceded putt is given in golf.

In doing so  he evidences exactly the disdain for institutional rules and procedures that the party elite is most concerned about. His rhetoric has already trashed many GOP sacred cows, so his push to circumvent or change its convention rules is seen as a major step towards the party’s demise (at least in its present form). Add to that his ignorance of even the most elementary notions of separation of powers and Executive Authority, and you have a GOP disaster-in-chief in the making. Heck, Trump as president (or Cruz for that matter) could well make Dubya Bush look positively Churchillian in comparison. Hence the RNC desire to snuff him out, and the only way to do so short of assassination is to force a brokered convention or run an “independent” candidate against him even if it ensures a loss in November.

 Campaign Financing.

I will not get into the intricacies of US campaign financing laws save for a couple of items. Individual contributions to candidates are limited but contributions to so-called Political Action Committees (PACs and Super PACs) are not. Under US electoral law corporations and lobbying groups are considered to be the same as individuals (i.e. there is no ceiling on contributions to PACs). PACs have been created as a way to circumvent the limitations on contributions to candidates and often serve as thinly disguised fronts for individual campaigns. Most of the money used to buy advertising, pay campaign staff and conduct the street level, grassroots get-out-the-vote work is channeled through PACs.

However, there is a twist. Before the national conventions, the DNC and RNC are prohibited from donating money to the campaigns of individual presidential candidates. Conversely, individual candidates can fund raise for themselves but not for others. This is an important detail because much fund-raising done by candidates like Hillary Clinton is done to channel money to so-called “coattail” candidates, that is, people in her party running for non-presidential offices who can benefit from the trickle down effect of her star power. Remember that in a presidential election year it is not just the presidency that is at stake. The entire House of Representatives (elected every two years) and one third of the Senate (elected every six years) are up for grabs as well, as are host of state and local offices.  This year 34 Senate seats are being contested and a shift in six seats would restore a Democratic majority, something that is almost as important to a Democratic presidency as is the person who holds it.

Therein lies the rub. None of the candidates are legally allowed to hold coattail fund-raisers and neither of the party national committees can help fund their candidacies until the nomination is secured. The Sanders campaign has cried foul after Hillary mentioned that her fund-raising was designed not just for herself but for other candidates, but the DNC has dismissed her slip of the tongue as inconsequential. In any event the practical solution to campaign financing is to channel all funds through PACs, which can then be instructed to finance campaigns for political offices up and down the ballot.

This is where, again, Bernie and The Donald have problems. The DNC and RNC are clearly channeling PAC money away from them and towards their rivals. Their own fund-raising efforts are focused on themselves without coattail-inducing support. Bernie has raised millions in small donations from individuals and some (mostly union) money, but is virtually devoid of serious PAC support. Trump is self-funded and it is debatable as to whether the RNC will reverse itself and direct money towards him in the event he secures the GOP nomination. If it does not, even his millions may not be enough to counter a well-financed, PAC-driven Democratic campaign with coattail effect, or even an “independent” GOP campaign focused more on securing the non-presidential positions on the ballot rather than the presidency.

In summation, once you strip away the dog and pony show aspects of the US election campaign, what you get is a contest run by two major parties that are authoritarian and hierarchical at their core, where both attempt to control voting outcomes from above rather than below, and which use electoral frameworks, convention rules and circuitous campaign financing to achieve that end. In that regard, the prospects for victory in November clearly lay on the Democratic side, whereas the prospects for an open party rupture is patently evident in the GOP.

Let the circuses conventions begin!


14 thoughts on “Some details about the US election campaign.

  1. Great Read.

    As my friends and I are all political junkies we have been avidly following this since July last year and even have a sweepstakes running (sadly my candidate Bush is out of the running).

    In short its highly entertaining and somewhat sad to watch the US go though this. I don’t think you could apply the words “democratic process” it.

    I would agree that NZ media coverage has been terrible, with Trump commonly demonized and Hillary made out to be the second coming (excluding the fact that every photo of her has her making a stupid face), but its not surprising given how even NZ politics rarely get good coverage.

    For purely entertainment purposes I want Trump to win so he can tell the world they are fired and they can tell him to take a flying leap. For all other reasons I would like to see Bernie Sanders win. Clinton just appears to be same as Trump but with the mask of respectability still on (as many media in the US have pointed out).

  2. I also want Trump to go all the way. You can polish that turd all you want but he is going to lead the GOP to a catastrophic defeat in November. That is a very good thing.

    I voted for Bernie in the Florida primary. He lost by a big margin but it is a proportional delegate state so he picked some of them up. My objective was to contribute to his getting enough delegates to contest or a least influence the policy platform at the Democratic national convention. Pulling Hillary to the Left on core policy issues is one key to restoring sanity to US politics.

    The importance and unpredictability of open primaries was illustrated in Michigan. All polls pointed to Hillary winning comfortably but Bernie won in landslide. Why? because Arab-American voters in Michigan (which has the largest number of Arab Americans in the US), who traditionally do not declare party preferences and who tend not to vote in primaries as well as general elections, opted to vote massively for The Bern as independents in the Democratic primary because they prefer his stance on the Israel-Palestinian impasse rather than her overt pro-Israel position. For all of Trump’s claims to be bringing in independents to his cause, the demographics suggest that for every independent that goes his way there are ten leaning in the other direction.

    It is all over but the shouting.

  3. Many thanks for the article Pablo, I’ll share it on my FB as it is very informative. What a convoluted system! – the primaries, am glad that it is much more straightforward in NZ

  4. Andrew and Julian:

    Cheers for that. Must be the former professor in me but I thought that a little clarification of the process was in order. It is not likened to sausage making for no reason.

  5. Nice summation of some the more salient features of the US “system” for selecting national candidates. One thing I suspect it is hard for a NZer to truly understand is the fractured nature of the approach. As a unitary state in which provinces, etc, have no practical sense, I suspect that the extensive variation in approach, outlook, and electoral character, of the various states simply doesn’t translate. And that’s not even touching on the vastness of the US (which I really didn’t comprehend until travelling within the country). After all, there are a lot of cities in the US that have more people than the country that is NZ.

    One feature that seems relatively unique this cycle is how relevant the later selection contests have become. For instance a Maryland primary (April 26th) is usually irrelevant to the process but this year actually matters.

    As a somewhat off-topic aside, given your view that closed primaries or caucuses are inherently undemocratic I’m curious if that carries across to the NZ electoral landscape and the process for selecting list and electorate candidates. As far as I can tell the various NZ political parties seem to be very restrictive in terms of defining who can put themselves forward as a candidate and who is allowed to actually choose candidates.

    In this regard I actually find it fascinating that in the US, in some states at least, the selection process for representatives of private organisations actually allow non-members to participate. I suspect this is actually pretty unusual, globally speaking.

  6. It’s good to read some intelligent comment from within NZ. I have largely given up watching TV news here, apart from al-Jazeera. ‘Our’ news barely goes beyond the level of ‘cat up tree’ story -ie even when they cover something serious they may as well just have a ‘cat up tree’ story because it’s so superficial. TV3 is marginally less awful than TV1, but that’s not saying much.

    It’s also good to find some people on the left who aren’t freaked out by Trump. He’s bonkers and if he won the presidency – extremely unlikely – he would do some serious damage to US power and prestige (not a bad thing!).

    Here’s an interesting piece on populism (left and right) in US politics:

    And here’s a reminder of what Ms Clinton represents:

    And on Clinton and corporate feminism:

  7. “This year 34 Senate seats are being contested and a shift in six seats would restore a Democratic majority, something that is almost as important to a Democratic presidency as is the person who holds it.”

    This is key. If Trump wins the Republican nomination, then I think the Democrats have a much greater chance to win back the House and Senate. (I’ve tried looking up some evidence to support this argument but couldn’t find much, except that there’s some general agreement that Senate/House elections tend to mirror the Presidential election, so a swing towards Clinton would help Democrats running for Congress). The Democrats winning back Congress, and controlling the Presidency, would be fantastic news for the world. In particular, climate change policy.

    “The RNC both fears and wants that to happen. Fears, because it most likely will lead to defeat in November. Wants, because it could be the only way to prevent Trump from winning the nomination.”

    I’m in the same boat as the RNC, except for opposite reasons :-) I want Trump to win for the reasons above. But I’m fearful (terrified is more accurate) that if he wins the nomination, a majority of Americans will vote for him. I’m absolutely convinced that large chunks of the American public are beyond tired with with the US political establishment, and are willing to do anything to change things.

  8. Pablo – I’m confused by your discussion of brokered/contested conventions. My understanding of the term is that it refers to a convention where the voting fails to pick a nominee on the first round of voting – surely with only two candidates, this is essentially impossible? Surely if Clinton goes into the convention with the majority of pledged delegates, she’s won?

    By putting forward the figure of 66% of remaining delegates that she has to get to secure the nomination, you seem to be buying into the specious argument that for some reason all the superdelegates will vote with Bernie, even if he has lost the pledged delegate count, and popular vote.

    Not only does this seem unlikely under normal circumstances – as in 2008, I would imagine most superdelegates would support the candidate with the most pledged delegates – it seems doubly unlikely, given that the superdelegates represent the Democratic establishment you say so loathes and fears Bernie.

    The lead Obama had over Clinton in 2008 was proportionately much smaller than the lead she has over Sanders, and it came down to Superdelegates – but I heard no talk at the time about “contested conventions” (although I was admittedly less involved in following the primaries that time).

    I can’t fault the rest of your explanations and analysis, but this part left me scratching my head.

  9. Daniel:

    The Democratic convention will be contested but not brokered. I did not mean to imply that it would follow the first round, subsequent round voting that is characteristic of brokered conventions. Bernie will show up with enough delegates, including super delegates, to force Clinton to concede on key policy issues. If she beats him 60/40 percent she cannot say that she has an unbridled mandate (and the delegate count may be closer than that). The Indiana result (supposedly against all odds) demonstrates that he can arrive at the convention with significant cards to play, and as I have said before, she needs his supporters to vote for her if she is to crush Trump and put to rest the populist/xenophobic/bigoted/authoritarian current in US politics (for the time being, anyway).

    So it is not a brokered convention is the traditional sense of the term, as would have happened had Trump not won Indiana. But it will be a contested one in the sense that different policy platforms will compete for delegate’s favour, and there many Clinton delegates will be open to concession in order to see the Party prevail in November.

  10. Hi Pablo, thanks for your reply.

    Your second paragraph in the “Brokered or Contested Conventions” section does seem to imply that both kinds involve multiple rounds of voting, but it’s a ridiculously complicated system, so I understand not going into the detail of every possible scenario.

    I guess I still find it hard to see a scenario in which Clinton goes into the convention with a majority of pledged delegates, and doesn’t come out the nominee – so I would disagree with your statement “Clinton needs to win 66 percent of the remaining delegates in order to secure the nomination” – but I would agree with your more general point that, considering Sanders’ strong showing, she will need to accomodate his voters to maximise her chances of winning in November.

    The comparison with the 2008 primaries is still interesting, seeing as Obama won with a bare couple of percentage points, both in the pledged delegates, and after superdelegates voted (and I don’t recall anyone questioning his mandate), but I guess in that case the ideological space between the two candidates was much smaller – and Clinton conceded the race prior to the convention, which Sanders’ seems very unlikely to do.

  11. To put it all another way – suppose there were no superdelegates. Whoever wins the pledged delegates wins the nomination. If Clinton went into the convention with 55% or 60% of the delegates, she would be at no risk of losing the nomination, but I think she would still have to make concessions to Sanders on policy (or would be unwise not to) – not to secure the nomination, but because the American left is in a time and place that demands it.

    *PS: yes, I checked my facts on Obama’s nomination, and he did win a substantial majority at the convention, once Clinton withdrew and threw her support and delegates behind him. But even if she hadn’t, I don’t think it would have had a great effect on Obama’s candidacy, or the election, apart from making her appear petty.

  12. My point about the Democratic convention being contested was not that Clinton could lose the nomination to Sanders, but that Sanders may have enough delegates to force a pro forma first vote rather than just concede the nomination. That will give him the chance to address the convention with his demands, and depending on how close his delegate count is to Clinton’s, have them incorporated into her policy platform.

    TBH, I am now more interested in the unfolding disaster that is the Republican Party in the lead up to the GOP convention. Between those who will not endorse Trump, those who will not attend the convention, and the rising tide of anti-Trump conservatives trying to raise money for an alternative candidate, the wheels are well and truly coming off the cart. The convention venue could well turn into a Trump echo chamber rather than a party celebration.

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