A friend asked me a few days ago why I haven’t said anything yet about the U.S. presidential election. Frankly, I’ve been trying to avoid it, but here goes.
The Trump Phenomenon
Back in the summer, a visiting relative from the U.K. cried out, almost as soon as she walked in the door: “Trump! What on earth are you people doing with Trump?!” Believe me when I say a hefty chunk of the U.S. population is similarly appalled. Every time you think he couldn’t get any more outrageous, something else happens.
Trump is the limbo-dance candidate: you just keep wondering, how low can he go?
For now, I’ll just point to the two best pieces I’ve come across on this subject, both in the October 15th 2016 edition of The Economist magazine. In addition to a three page special briefing that talks about Trump as “a self-described sexual predator, [who] has violated his party and America”, the Schumpeter business column in the same edition perfectly sums up the business of extreme media: “the entrepreneurs of outrage and barons of bigotry who have paved the way for Donald Trump’s rise.”
While the rest of the world has only woken up to the craziness of the Republican candidate in the last few weeks, the whole circus of the U.S. presidential election actually kicked off a full 18 months ago, when the first of the candidates started to announce their intention to run. Yes, MONTHS.
It’s like a perpetual motion machine that sucks in vast amounts of cash and at the end spits out something usually utterly insipid (Dukakis?) but, occasionally, truly historic and inspiring (Obama).
The Presidential Electoral Process
My first experience with this circus was the 1988 race, which ended up pitting Democrat Michael Dukakis against Republican George H. W. Bush. At the time, I was a graduate student studying political science, and here was a real, live presidential race! I breathlessly assumed I was about to experience the very pinnacle of the democratic process, so I followed every poll, every candidate, every press release.
(This is now going to get a bit technical, so unless you’re fascinated by politics you should probably skip the next five paragraphs.)
Being a proud “liberal” in the American sense (which these days seems to mean anyone with political leanings to the left of Genghis Khan), I paid the most attention to the Democratic race, from the run-up to the Pennsylvania state primary in late April, through the party convention in mid-July in Atlanta, and on to the final vote on November 8 (coincidentally the same date as this year; per the constitution, the presidential vote is aways held “the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November”). At one point there were a total of eight Democratic candidates that year, briefly dubbed “Snow White and the Seven dwarfs” by the media. At the end of the day, Bush ended up with 53.4% of the vote — which translated into 426 electoral votes, with Bush carrying 40 of the 50 states.
And this is where things get complicated. The hoopla all focuses on the vote on election day, but the U.S. president is actually chosen indirectly — on November 8, we’re really casting a ballot for the members of the Electoral College. These people, in turn, cast a direct vote for the President and Vice President, who need an absolute majority of 270 to win. Each state is assigned a number of electors equal to the size of its delegation in the two houses of Congress, combined. So Pennsylvania, where I now live, has 20 Electoral College votes; California is the biggest prize with 55; Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming are among the states with the minimum number of 3.
But it gets better! The role of the Electoral College and its procedure is laid out in the U.S. constitution but the manner of choosing those electors is determined by each state legislature — and there’s no common way to do it. Of the 50 states, 48 have a winner-take-all system — so whichever candidate gets the largest share of the vote in Pennsylvania will get all 20 of the state’s Electoral College votes. (Maine and Nebraska use a proportional representation system to divvy up the votes; I warned you this would get technical.) The various electors then meet in their respective state capitals on the same date in mid-December and cast the vote for president. It’s quite possible to win the largest share of the popular vote, but lose in the Electoral College — or vice versa.
Yet even before we get to all of the final voting, there’s primary season to get through first. This is the process by which each of the parties chooses its candidate for the election. There’s actually nothing in the U.S. constitution on how a political party should go about holding primaries (in fact, there’s nothing in the constitution about political parties at all — can you imagine what John Adams would make of Trump?). And this being a federal political system, the process of choosing candidates actually varies by state. I’ll spare you the details.
For the 2016 presidential election, we started with six Democratic Party candidates, which had been winnowed down to three by the time of the first primary — the Iowa caucuses on February 1. By the time of the Pennsylvania primary on April 26, we were down to two. The final primary votes were in South Dakota on June 7 and the District of Colombia on June 14. That’s a four-and-a-half month process just to choose the delegates to each party’s national convention, who in turn choose the party’s candidate — and all of this is reported, analyzed and “spun” in the local and national media. Ad nauseum.
The winner is finally sworn in on Inauguration Day, which this time around is January 20, 2017 — a full 21 months after Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy on April 12, 2015.
Expensive and Alienating
The cost of this circus is staggering. According to the statistics portal http://www.statista.com, a total of just under $211 million was spent on the 1988 presidential election; by the 2008 vote, spending had jumped to $1.7 billion. And this is just spending by the individual campaigns; it doesn’t include spending by various interest and lobbying groups on behalf of candidates.
All of which might explain why a political science student would find this whole thing so fascinating — but also perhaps explains why voter turnout in America is so stunningly low. In 1996 a mere 48% of eligible voters bothered to cast a vote; even in 2008, the year of Obama’s historic election, turnout was just 58% of eligible voters.
You have to go all the way back to the nineteenth century to get European levels of turnout (the University of California, Santa Barbara has a great online database on presidential elections, with enough data to keep the biggest election-nerd happy: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu).
Is It Getting Worse?
This is my eighth presidential election, and my fourth as a voting citizen. And I really do think they’ve been getting more and more odious; I can’t imagine a serious candidate getting away with Trump’s outrageous assertions back in 1988. Is this because the news cycle is getting so much shorter, so people just forget the egregious comments so quickly? Is it because the media has to generate ever-more outrageous commentary to get attention in this age of information saturation?
It’s so easy to compare this 21 months of torment with the process in the U.K. — in the 2015 general election, parliament was dissolved and the campaign began on March 30; the vote was held May 7; and the new parliament assembled on May 18. That’s seven weeks, start to finish. And political party spending reportedly came to about £40 million (that’s about $49 million at the latest exchange rate).
But, of course, the two countries are very different, starting with a presidential vs. a parliamentary political system. The crazy circus that is the U.S. presidential election has its roots in history — a vast country where even at the time of the original 13 states, it took days for people to assemble and cast votes, and where the separate states were jealous of their independence and their power, making the whole Electoral College thing seem like a good idea at the time.
And so weary American voters approach the finish line of this epic marathon. I’m not going to say the whole thing is better or worse than any other version of governance (hereditary monarchy, anyone?). But there’s a reason why “Meteor 2016” has been a popular car bumper sticker this year.