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14 February 2016

The US Presidential race from the distance

To whomever likes politics, the Presidential election in the United States is always an interesting, and sometimes exciting, event. Not only because it is the largest economy in the world, but most especially for the unique political setting, that in essence forces the squeeze of a vast swath of candidates into just two parties. The indirect election system (with great electors per state), coupled with the party primary system produces a rather intricate process, divided in two phases that drag on for well over an year.

The election this year is no exception and is clearly falling into the exciting category. It can actually become an even more exciting race than that that gave the Presidency to Barack Obama in 2008. With the first primaries already in, most candidates already in firm ground and plenty of polling, one can already speculate on the outcome and its implications.


The most relevant novelty of this election is the segmentation of the Democrat party. If in the past few decades the candidates to the primaries of this party were all relatively uniform in their philosophical positioning, this year there is Bernard Sanders - a self proclaimed socialist. Even if Sanders could at best be mistaken for a moderate social-democrat, his rise to prominence among the Democratic electorate points to a widely divided party - something up to now only common in the Republican camp.

Sanders is in various ways a catalysing candidate. He is demystifying the concept of Socialism, which in the US is a synonym of anti-democrat and may be considered an offence. He is bringing to the fray a young generation that up to now had been mostly uninterested in politics. He is the first Presidential candidate to gain prominence while being ignored (and at times even detracted) by the mainstream media. And of course, he is bringing about issues that are widely consensual among Americans but are largely watered down by the so called "establishment": raising the minimum wage, taxing large corporations (including banks), creating an universal health system, eliminating tuition fees in public universities, etc. - i.e. what we call here in Europe the Social or Welfare State.

Sanders is indeed popular, but can he win? Can he pull out a turnaround like Obama did in 2008? At the present time the answer is a somewhat clear "no". It is all about the numbers, contrary to 2008, this time Hillary Clinton has almost all the super-delegates with her. These are non-elected delegates that get to select together with the elected (or pledged) delegates the Democrat nominee for the actual Presidential election. Since super-delegates are essentially present and past party leaders, they naturally prefer a candidate more in tune with liberal parchments.

According to the Wikipaedia, Clinton has with her already 417 super-delegates, against just 14 declaring support for Sanders. There will be 4 763 delegates at the democratic convention, with 2 388 required to win the nomination. If no other super-delegate declares support for him, Sanders needs 2 368 pledged candidates to win; in contrast, Clinton needs at most 1 966. Translating into percentages, Sanders needs on average 55% of the primary votes in each state to get nominated. This is far ahead of the 42% preference he obtains among Democratic electors in national polls. Not impossible, but certainly a remote scenario.


If in the Democrat camp it is a candidate ignored by the media taking the show, on the Republican side it is the darling of the press making troughs. Donald Trump has more air time at national TV than all the Democratic candidates combined and more than twenty times the coverage lent to Sanders. He has slowly risen above the usual crowd of Republican candidates and holds solidly to about one third of the Republican electorate.

Trump has much in common with Sanders, also a party outsider that in various ways seems at odds with the core conservative philosophy. He has ran a remarkable campaign, producing a continuous stream of (many times controversial) sound-bites echoed by the press ad infinitum. Like Sanders, Trump presents himself as someone unafraid of saying what he thinks and feels; but while the former taps on the electorate's feel of social injustice, the later taps on the electorate's fears, especially concerning security.

Again the same question: can popularity be translated into a nomination? And again the same answer: "not really". Trump seems to be stabilising in polls and even failed to win the primary in the state of Iowa. He will mostly likely reach the Republican convention with the largest number of pledged delegates, but far from the majority. And without a majority there is not much chance for the party to nominate him.

The Republican inteligentsia tends to be more calculating in its choices. Due to his controversial nature, Trump is persistently defeated against either Democratic candidate in polls for the Presidential election; nominating him is not only questioning the party's principles, it is like signing the terms of surrender. This is the simple reason why so many Republican candidates are still in the race - they know the fight will be decided only at the convention.

The real race is therefore among the conventional Republican candidates, especially Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and John Kasich. Each touch a particularly sensibility among the much fractioned conservative camp, and it will not be surprising to see two, or even three, of these names sharing a single "ticket" to the White House, between President, Vice-President and perhaps Secretary of State.

And this is a remarkable feature of this election: the race for second in the Republican party is in fact the most important race, and perhaps the only one that matters in the long run.

The long game

While Clinton retains a good degree of popularity among the Democratic electorate (45% preference), she is largely unpopular among non-liberals. The end result is quite bleak: the only Republican she can clearly defeat in the final one-on-one for the White House is Donald Trump. She appears at best tied against Cruz, for instance, and clearly behind Rubio. Moreover, considering the negative approval ratings among non-liberals, Clinton has considerably fewer chances of appealing to undecided and unaligned voters. Conventional Republican candidates in contrast have more ground to progress, especially less media worn figures such as Rubio or Carson.

Sanders often terms Clinton the candidate of the "establishment", but the candidate of the status quo is possibly more adequate. She simply represents the continuation of policies with which many Americans have grown disillusioned. The electorate yearns for a shake up that Clinton can not offer.

Here is the dilemma faced by the Democratic party: either nominate Clinton to get a conservative President, or nominate Sanders, whom even if not clearly a socialist, certainly is not a liberal. It is the proverbial choice between two evils.

That is why this election is so interesting. The Democrats seem to have long decided on whom they wish to nominate, but as the race for second in the Republican party unfolds, a coup of pragmatism can still take place and overturn the present predicament.


In spite of whom eventually gets nominated by the Democratic party, the rise of a politician like Bernard Sanders means that deep changes are about for this party, especially considering the associated generational divide.

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