Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Big day for Americans

I have been tempted to ask my American online friends and acquaintances to explain the complexities of their electoral system. I read their blogs in the hope of learning about such things as caucuses and Super Tuesday but I suppose they just take it all for granted and don't feel the need to explain. I'd like to ask them how, in the land of Democracy, small groups of women meeting for coffee in a midwest town can decide who is to run for president - I expect I've misunderstood. Another thing I've probably got wrong is thinking that only multi-millionaires can become president; that seems to be as much a given fact as that only Scots can become prime minister here.

As far as I can see from our news coverage, the whole presidential selection procedure is more about image than policy. Barack Obama, apart from being the first black potential president, appears to represent change but in a rather unspecified way. I've heard him described as the most eloquent public speaker since Jefferson, so perhaps he'll get in on words alone.

I had to rack my brains to remember the name of the Republican candidates, never mind recalling anything about what they represent. That's probably down to our press coverage, too. It would seem that John McCain is likely to be a clear winner and his appeal is that he is admirable as a Vietnam war hero and deserves sympathy because he survived torture.

That leaves Hillary. She is the first woman candidate, she is apparently a good lawyer and has a lot of experience. Unfortunately she has to live down certain family connections so she uses tears to win the sympathy vote. But McCain is after that vote with better credentials. What's a girl to do?

I thought everything would be clear by the end of today but I've just read that the process for selecting the Democratic candidate could rumble on. What comes after Super Tuesday? Wonderful Wednesday or Fantastic Friday? I'm not interested in party politics, since I can't vote, but I would like to have a better understanding of the procedure for choosing a president. Do the candidates who have battled each other for nomination become campaign buddies for their party once the decision is made? Does everyone get to vote for the president as well as for their local representative?

I'm embarrassed to admit my ignorance on these matters but I've asked around and no-one I know can answer these questions either. I would appreciate a simple explanation of the basics.


  1. I confess to being as confused about your system as you say you are about ours.

    We have basically a two party system, Democrats/Liberals on the left and Republicans/Conservatives on the right. I’d tell you how these parties compare with your political parties, but I truthfully don’t know although it has been explained to me many times.

    To greatly simplify, in presidential elections, voters in each state elect delegates to the Electoral College where the actual votes for president are cast. It’s a winner take all system, so by the end of election day, the results are known (the Electoral College having become something of a mere formality).

    Answering the easy questions first:

    Q. Does everyone get to vote for the president as well as for their local representative?

    A. Yes. Eligible voters may vote in all elections, presidential, state, city, town, hamlet ...

    Q. Do the candidates who have battled each other for nomination become campaign buddies for their party once the decision is made?

    A. Yes – for the most part.

    Q. Caucuses? Are they merely gatherings of like minded people who get together informally to choose a candidate to endorse.

    A. Yes, but naturally, as in all things, the devil is in the details.

    Q. The Primary System?

    A. Prior to Kennedy, politicians in smoke-filled rooms met and chose their party’s nominees. After the conventions, traditionally held in August, there would be a short hiatus and the election campaign would start in earnest after Labor Day (first Monday after the first Tuesday in September).

    Joseph Kennedy knowing his son would never be nominated the old-fashioned way, contrived to wrest the nomination process away from the party faithful by forcing voters registered in each party to vote in primaries to pick delegates to the presidential conventions in as many states as he could strong-arm party members to organize.

    It worked. When Kennedy arrived at the convention in 1960, he was armed with a lot of delegates. As you can imagine, the old timers didn’t like the situation and there was a lot of old fashioned chicanery. In fact, that convention, televised raw and unedited, was so eye-opening to an impressionable young mother like myself, that I never again thought of believing anything coming from the Democratic party and I’ve never had occasion to change my mind since.

    So the primary system was born and now anyone who was born in the U.S. can enter the presidential race by tossing his or her hat in the ring. It’s hugely expensive because the campaign cycle begins practically before the ballots from the previous one have had a chance to cool off. Each of the 50 states plus Guam, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, etc. has its own nomination process and the organization required is immense, ditto TV ads, mailings, etc.

    Potential candidates needn’t be gazillionaires, but it’s necessary that they be able to raise huge pots of money. The primary process is further complicated because some states have a winner take all for delegates and some have proportional delegate representation.

    Q. Super Tuesday?

    In their zeal to be the first primary in the country, various states had been juggling their primary dates around in a dizzying fashion, so to avoid further confusion, a whole bunch of them agreed on the first Tuesday of February and so Super (Dooper) Tuesday was born.

    Q.(not asked). A Brokered Convention?

    It’s conceivable that in one or both parties, none of the candidates will arrive at their convention in August with enough delegates to win the nomination, so we may see a new version of the old smoke-filled room deciding who the candidates shall be!

    The Candidates?

    The Democrats: Hillary, senator from New York State, is a lawyer and an experienced politician. Obama, senator from the state of Illinois, is a facile speaker, with a very sparse resume.

    The Republicans: Mitt Romney, a successful businessman was governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. John McCain, senator from the state of Arizona, is a war hero and former POW.

    A quick Google will give you plenty more information on the candidates.

  2. Our system is simple. We vote neither for our head of state (the Queen), nor for our Prime Minister. One is the legacy of history, and the other is, currently, the (reluctant) legacy of Tony Blair. No coffee mornings (or squillions of £££) required!

    Can see from this: http://www.dipdive.com/ how so many are getting swept away on a tide of Obama euphoria, but - while it's big on hope for change, it's a bit short on how, exactly, that's going to come about.

  3. Thank you, e, for taking all that trouble but I think I'm even more confused than ever. I'm going to print your explanation off and study it. I hope I can come back to you with more queries tomorrow.

    Our system is easier, I think. We have three parties: Conservative (Tory), Labour and Liberal. Each party has a leader, elected by its members.
    The UK is divided into 646 parliamentary constituencies each of which elects its representative. The party that wins the greatest number of seats in the House of Commons forms the government and their leader becomes Prime Minister.

    I'll be back when I've tried to digest all the information about your system .... I may be gone for some time!

  4. Hi Juliet, your comment must have arrived while I was busy typing mine.
    I haven't got my head round e's information yet but I am surprised by the complexity. On the other hand the sheer size of the US must demand a more complex system than our tiny islands.
    I'm admit to being a bit disappointed to find that the nation that simplified our spelling system made elections more complicated.

  5. We have five times your population, so we'd have 3,230 parliamentary districts. Now that would be confusing.

    I'm sorry if I didn't make it clear enough. Perhaps some of the other regulars will be able to do a better job.

    The old smoke-filled room method of picking presidential candidates more closely follows your system where party regulars, not the voting public choose national leaders.

    That is a much simpler system than the primaries which, IMO, are designed more for obfuscation than information.

  6. If I understand it correctly -- MP's are elected by voters in their own districts and the party which wins the most MP's, gets to choose the PM.

    BTW - What's the difference between the Labour and Liberal parties?

    If Tories are conservative, who, then, are the Whigs?

  7. I've had an interesting time with your information plus a few links I've followed, e. I think I've got the hang of it but can you tell me if I'm right in thinking that it is possible for you to have a president who does not belong to the party with the majority of representatives in Congress? If I have understood correctly, the presidential election is separate from the elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives.

    Back to UK. The Tories and Whigs were the two parliamentary groups (pre-dating the party system) in the 17th to 19th centuries. Basically the Tories supported the absolute monarchy and the Whigs wanted a a constitutional system. Eventually they developed into the Conservative and Liberal parties - the word Tory has carried on in usage but whig isn't used any more. The Conservative party has traditionally been just that - to the Right in politics. The Liberal party wants proportional representation and much less government interference in people's lives.
    The Labour Party developed in the early 20th century to represent the workers. It was the party of the Left and first got into government after WW11. It soon became more powerful than the Liberal party, which has never been a real contender since but I think is an important presence in parliament.

    For many years the Labour party was quite militant Left, until John Smith and then Tony Blair changed it to New Labour, much more middle-of-the-road in its thinking.

    We do also have independent members of parliament (unaffiliated to parties) and a few minor groups such as UKIP (UK Independence Party) which wants to get us out of the European Union, and the National Front, which is an extreme right wing, racist group.

    Who says blogging isn't educational?

  8. monix, it took me years to really appreciate this, but I think we have to understand that, while the Federal Government sets the rules for the actual presidential election, the rules for choosing candidates for each party are state-driven and date back to the early days when "United States of America" really was a plural noun. So if one state decides to hold a primary and another decides to flip a coin, that's ok. Hence the pig's breakf...er..fascinating variety.

    Also they don't have responsible government (calm down, erp, that just means the executive loses power if it loses the confidence of the legislative branch). The President is in for four years come what may and can't be forced to resign on a non-confidence motion in Congress. Hence it makes perfect sense that individual citizens vote for both branches directly, especially as their philosophy is that sovereignty originates in the people.

  9. Yes. Each house of congress and the president can and often are of different parties. This is the situation which produces the dread “gridlock,” meaning business as usual in Washington stops because none of the fractious factions involved will give an inch. It’s often a blessing in disguise because as Thoreau said, “That government is best which governs least.”

    A little more background: Our federal government is made up of three separate and equal branches: The executive (president); the legislative (bicameral congress made up of the senate (two senators per state) and the house of representatives (number for each state calculated by population) and the judicial (nine member supreme court). The duties of each are spelled out in the Constitution.

    Each of the 50 states has similar governments, with governors as executives, most have bicameral legislatures and a system of state judges.

    Re: Super Tuesday. Nothing definite happened, so the candidates will soldier on.

    Whig: Liberal as the word was originally defined now corrupted (at least here in the U.S.) to mean leftwing/socialist.

  10. Thanks Peter and e, I think I'm getting there. I'll leave the
    state judges and the supreme court for another day, though. My head hurts!

  11. Excellent progress for one day.

  12. One thing that is very clear from all this is that at least voters on the ground have a chance to say what they want and how they feel. Last time you had a Vice-President who took over with no election was after the Kennedy Assasination and then Nixon's resignation. those were exceptional cases. Please tell me if I have this wrong.

    Over here, if the leader of the party resigns, as in The Blessed St Tony of Blair, Gordon B is just popped into No 10 with no consultation whatsoever.

    At least democracy is being demonstrated in the US and everyone seems to be absorbed and interested in the process. Over here, apathy is the order of the day with increasingly low turnouts at the polls.
    Thanks for all this info - I too will print it off and study at leisure

  13. Brook, I wish I could accept congratulations for my fellow citizens involvement in the political process. Alas very few of us are. Most of us are content to be dry leaves being blown about in the wind of media bleating and politician bloviating, but somehow we muddle through anyway.

    Our Vice-President is part of the executive team, elected for the specific purpose of taking over should the president be unable to fulfill his* duties for any reason.

    Since your PM is selected by the members of his party, it follows logically that they would select his successor as well.

    I’m not quite clear about when and why a general election is called since there are no regularly scheduled elections.

    *or her


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