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L'America: The Republican Primary

2015-10-21 13 min read marco

Stop hounding me, already! Yes, I will explain the Republican primary to you. And get that smirk off your face: after all, for every Trump there has been a Berlusconi, and for every Huckabee you had a Harper or an Abbott.

Primaries. When voters elect a person, instead of a party, it makes no sense to have a random set of characters show up. It’s smarter to pick a single candidate and pool all the votes of a group together. Otherwise you need runoff elections and the like. You could argue that a runoff election is no worse than a primary vote, and you would be right. But that’s just not the way things work here, in America.

There are several parties, but all but two are inconsequential. The Democratic party, and the Republican. They are centuries old each and are fierce rivals. Which you wouldn’t be able to tell by the names, since they both stand for qualities of America that are uncontested. Not many Democrats would want America not to be a republic, nor do many Republicans stand united against democracy.

When it comes to presidential elections, though, the two parties trot out their best and elect a single candidate that will run against the single candidate of the other party. Unlike in Europe, where this wrangling is internal to the party and usually quite disgusting, in America the wrangling is public. The public also has the final say in the matter. Imagine being able to choose the candidates in an election, instead of being told by party wonks who it’s going to be!

As you recall, America has a two-term limit on Presidents. That’s relatively new and was instituted in 1947 after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to four terms. That’s as close as America has ever gotten to a president for life. Considering that the first presidents (including Washington) all resolved to limit themselves to two terms, enshrining the principle in the Constitution made sense. It ended up being the 22nd amendment, the first one passed after the repeal of Prohibition.

So, there are three possible conditions entering a presidential contest:

  1. The current President is in her/his first term is and is seeking re-election
  2. The current President is term-limited and a new member of her/his party is nominated
  3. The current President is of the opposing party

In general, Americans tend to re-vote the current President for a second term, unless there is some major disruption. That was the case in 1992, when George H. W. Bush was not re-elected. The main reason was that Ross Perot, the Donald Trump of the day, had decided to run against him, splitting the Republican vote and allowing Bill Clinton to win the ticket. Worse things have happened in history.

When the President is term-limited, as will be the case in 2016, she or he has both a strong presence in the campaign and a lot of weight. Commonly, the Vice-President runs, trying to continue the legacy of the predecessor in some way. That was of course the case for Al Gore in 2000, and he almost won. Joe Biden seems to have decided not to run.

The opposing party, on the other hand, has no other guide but God’s in finding a new candidate. Anyone may run, and nobody has much of a say in who has a chance. Since Republicans have not won in two elections, there is no obvious front-runner and their primaries are raucous, loud, brash, and ultimately fun.

First things first: the Republican party is currently a mess. That is a result of the 2010 census and redistricting, which I may explain at some other point. Of interest right now: for many Republicans, compromise is a dangerous activity.

America’s culture, like that of any other place, sometimes espouses conflicting values. Here we have a generally forward-looking, progress-oriented economy that values tradition and conservatism. The progressive part of the electorate responds to the conflict with frustration. The conservative with fear.

Fear having become a conservative value, “standing your ground,” “showing strength,” “being uncompromising” have risen to the moniker “values.” Conservatives feel encircled and are on the defensive, to the point of having invented a “War on Christmas” that seems to revolve entirely around the fact that many people have stopped wishing “Merry Christmas” and instead say, “Happy Holidays.” That’s in an effort to include those who do not wish to celebrate Christmas (or be reminded of it).

The big problem of being uncompromising in politics is, of course, that you have to have a series of positions first. “Conservative” is a general term, not a series of positions. Conservatives, as a result, have to first settle on what they believe and then can defend it against the tides of change. This approach is very haphazard and some of the values (and especially their justification) come into direct conflict with each other.

I found the best example always to be the way American conservatives demonize abortion as murder. The mother’s decision to terminate her pregnancy is murder, they say, because the fetus is imbued with a soul at conception and because its DNA is separate and different from the mother’s. The same conservatives that are so concerned about the well-being of a newly formed clump of cells, though, find themselves actively defending the death penalty and acts of war. Because in the former case, they decided that the life to be destroyed is not worth letting survive, and in the second that an abstract sense of security is more important than thousands of lives.

You have a set of conflicting positions and an electorate that wants you to be uncompromising on all of them. It’s the political equivalent of walking on a tightrope. Only that there are 16 other people on the tightrope, and you push each other to see who is the last (wo)man standing. Never mind that, just as in the simile of the tightrope, it’s highly likely that the last (wo)man will have lost enough balance from the pushing and wobbling, (s)he will in the end fall with all the others.

It makes for great entertainment, though. Sometimes I believe that Fox and the other networks care much less about who’s actually running the country and much more about the ratings. After all, they can count on a series of consensus points that unify Republican and Democratic presidents – Clinton, Bush, Obama presented a continuity of positions towards media and business in general.

The Democrats, of course, have their own debates. They are mostly snoozey, though. The candidates are espousing positions that seem really not that important (such as Lincoln Chafee and his push to turn America metric), or they are really nice to each other, like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. It’s really reminiscent of watching a speech by Germany’s Angela Merkel: someone whose statesmanship is beyond doubt, but who’s really no good at a Cologne Carnival Beer Hall.

Fear dominating the conservative electorate, it craves strength above all else in a candidate. Translated into the tactics of a debate, strength means yelling at each other after any statement. It means bending the truth, it means not backing down from irresponsible statements, it means not accepting defeat at the hands of facts.

No candidate is better at these tactics than the current front runner, Donald Trump. He is blustery, ornery, stubborn. He is also a great communicator, one of the few people in this country who can bridge the world of the hyper-poor and the super-rich that is the core of American conservatism.

Outside of America, much has been made of Trump’s riches. He is compared to Berlusconi in Italy, for instance, and sometimes he does make the same argument: vote for me, he seems to say, because I made myself rich and can make you rich if you let me do my job. Americans are not as gullible as Italians, though, and they understand that a man who makes himself rich is not likely to be generous to others by default.

Instead, Trump’s meteoric rise in the polls has a completely different origin: his lies have a foundation in the truth, and hence he is felt to be authentic.

How is that possible? The Republican party got used, during the Bush years, to double-speak of Orwellian proportions. Republicans in Congress, in particular, were famous for empty gestures, for legislation meant to do the opposite of what it said it would do, for public positions taken only because they knew they would never have to deliver on them. This was both the case during the Republican Bush administration (where the President on the face pushed for an anti-gay Marriage Amendment and to select a Supreme Court that would overturn the liberal stance on abortions), and of course during the Democratic Obama administration (where Congress voted umpteen times to undo ObamaCare, knowing fully well there was no possibility this would actually happen).

Trump, on the other hand, lies by exaggeration, not in an attempt to misguide. When he says that Jeb Bush is too low-energy to be president, he is lying: as Angela Merkel proves, you don’t have to be high-energy to be a statesman. But he is saying the truth in a different sense: Jeb Bush is, in fact, very low-energy. It is highly unlikely that an electorate craving strength and fully angry would want someone in power who is measured and realistic.

Donald Trump has a knack for that. He finds the one quality of a person that doesn’t quite work in their favor and uses it against them. He has specialized his oratory skills in this particular regard, realizing that the creative destruction of his opposition is something that makes him rise and shine. He is talking to an electorate that is sick of lies from their own leadership and promises a new kind of leader.

The other candidates in the primaries, all distant from the Trump, are divided roughly in two camps. There are the establishment candidates, who have worked within the ranks of the Republican party for years and decades. The front-runners of the far-off pack in this regard are currently Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush. Opposing the establishment (candidates) are Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson.

That none of these can get to prominence above Donald Trump is an indication of their own weakness, not of Trump’s strength. Establishment candidates have to live with the fact the public doesn’t want a Republican party nominee, because it is done with candidates that say one thing and do another. I absolutely understand that. I would, too, be upset if the only accomplishment my Republican Congressperson could point to is their 47th vote to defund Obamacare.

Jeb Bush, of course, has to live with the legacy of his brother. Never very popular after 2008, George W. Bush’s policies with regards to Iraq have the potential to disrupt the brother’s candidacy at any time. Even in the best of scenarios, Jeb Bush is a ticking political time bomb that may or may not explode before the elections. Chris Christie is plagued by corruption scandals (not a surprise to anyone who follows New Jersey politics) and even more by the handshake he exchanged with President Obama. Marco Rubio is simply to baby-faced and inexperienced to make the cut. Maybe he can run in 2020 against Kanye West?

Of the other three, Ben Carson was an early favorite. He is staunchly conservative, a favorite of the Christian right, and incredibly funny. It is hard not to like Ben Carson, no matter how backwards his politics may seem to you. He’s the guy that, during the previous cycle, quoted the immortal poetry of the Pokemon song in his campaign. Sadly for the entertainment content of the primaries, he seems to have dropped in favor for another anti-establishment candidate, Ted Cruz.

Ted Cruz is an oddball. By all rights, he belongs into the inner elite of Washington Republicans. He spurns them, though, preferring to do everything at odd with everyone. He’s the man that single-handedly sent the country into an emergency shutdown that cost it its pristine credit rating. Politicians hate him, which is certainly a plus with the conservative electorate right now. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to be backed by a whole lot of sensible policy positions.

Rand Paul, I believe, has not seen his star shine, yet. His positions on many issues are too Libertarian for many conservatives, but at least he has positions. He was for the liberalization of drugs, and that’s a policy that is slowly but surely seeming sensible, after many states have liberalized marijuana with no negative consequences (and massive tax gains).

Now, how does the primary election actually work? That’s incredibly complicated, for no good reason other than tradition.

First, each state is going to have a primary election for each party. In some states, you can only vote for the candidate of the party you belong to. In others, you can vote for both. Or you may vote for one only, regardless of your own party affiliation.

In some states, the vote is open and just like a regular vote. In others, the vote occurs at a caucus. That’s apparently a made-up word that indicates a gathering of party faithful to select a candidate or define a position. Caucuses are tricky for a candidate, because they require travel to a central location and hence only those living near the location and those very motivated to vote actually show up.

The states do not vote all on the same day. In fact, the sequence is both traditional and subject to intensive wrangling during each primary season. It all starts with Iowa’s caucuses, followed by New Hampshire’s primaries. Iowa being a middling state by population and area, while New Hampshire is one of the smallest in both regards. Iowa is also a very, very conservative state (to the point of ousting Supreme Court Justices just because they had voted for marriage equality before the United States Supreme Court).

These two states and their primaries matter a lot, because they traditionally make and break candidacies. If a candidate cannot muster a decent number of votes in these two contests, they typically drop out. The momentum of a candidate is in any case severely affected by the results of these contests, giving voters in Iowa and New Hampshire a disproportionate power.

Various states and territories follow with a calendar that may change from season to season. Then, about half the states vote on single day, including California and New York, two of the three most populous states (the other one being Texas). This Super Tuesday generally marks the end of the wrangling and the positions are pretty much fixed after that.

One should note that the results of one contest affect polls subsequently to a large extent. Voters in states that hold their contests after one state change their mind based on prior votes. I am not sure why that’s the case, other than that electability is a primary reason to vote in the primaries. If a candidate is not deemed electable in one state, there is very little reason to believe that to be the case in a different one.

Once all the states are done voting, the two parties hold their national conventions. These are giant parties held in cities that are of relevance to the vote: in 2012 the Republicans held their convention in Tampa, Florida. Florida is the key state for presidential elections, as it is very populous and quite evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats (as the election in 2000 made painfully clear). The Democrats held their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, another state that has no strong party allegiance.

These conventions occur in the summer. They used to be closer to the beginning, but lately they have moved later and later, into September. It makes perfect sense for this change: voters are busy vacationing at the beach in the summer and don’t pay a whole lot of attention to politics. By September, they are back to work. Additionally, national conventions have turned more into a crowning an an already anointed candidate, and holding this kind of party as close as possible to the actual vote increases momentum.

The date for the presidential election is decided by Congress by law. Currently, it is always the Tuesday following the first Monday in November.