Tuesday, January 03, 2012


Welcome to the 2012 Primary Season!

January 3rd has come! For anyone with an interest in American politics, that can mean only one thing: the primary season is about to start! 2012 is an election year – a big one, in which the presidency, a third of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives (not to mention innumerable state governors and legislatures) are up for grabs. How does it work? Who are the candidates? And what’s going to happen and what will it mean?

As is my habit, I’ll be blogging about the primaries as they happen, and the first important update will be in a couple of days, as the dust from the Iowa caucuses settles. But first, for those who haven’t been paying attention, let’s run through the basics of what promises to be quite an exciting political season! (Coming later: a rundown of the candidates, and a post about Iowa.)

The Process
The United States has probably the most bizarre and intricate public process for choosing its leaders of any country in the world. In principle, anyone can run for President: all you need to do is get enough signatures supporting your candidacy in each state where you want to be on the ballot, and that’s it. If you win enough votes in enough states, you’re President! Simples. (Well, not so simples, but the intricacies of the Electoral College are not today’s topic.)
In practice, though, if you want people to vote for you, people need to know who you are and what your policies are and why they should like you. For this, it helps to have three things: organisation, allies, and money. Like-minded people across the country therefore organise into the two great parties: the Republicans and the Democrats. Being the official candidate of a party gives you access to all three things that you need: a network of activists who will join your campaign, an across-the-board slate of other candidates for every major office in the country who will mention you in their own campaigns, and a nationwide community of political donors who will give you cash to pay for your staff, travel, literature, advertisements, donuts, haircuts, and anything else you might need.
So, how to become a party’s presidential nominee? By winning the votes of as many ordinary party members and insiders as possible, that’s how. Both parties have large conventions in the summer where representatives of the states, together with party grandees, cast their votes for who is to become nominee of the party. The party grandees make up their own minds about who to vote for. The number of votes (“delegates”) held by each state is decided by the party centrally, but each state then has a certain amount of freedom in deciding how to apportion its delegates. All of them organise a vote (co-ordinated with their state government).
Each state organises its vote in slightly different ways, but there are two main patterns of voting: primaries, which are just like a normal election (you show up to a polling place, fill out a ballot, and put it in a box), and caucuses, which are a bit more complicated (you have to show up to an entire evening of political speeches and arguments before the chance to vote comes). Since caucuses are more demanding, they tend to put off more casual voters and benefit candidates whose campaigns are better organised at getting their supporters to the polls (so-called “get out the vote” operations). Different groups of people are eligible to vote in each state: usually it’s any voter who’s registered as a member of that party, but sometimes it’s also voters registered as independent.
Crucially, states can decide the date of their vote. The result is a six-month cascade of votes spreading across the country. By tradition, the first one is the caucuses in Iowa, while the second (the “first primary”) is in New Hampshire shortly afterwards. These states seem slightly arbitrary, but there’s a certain logic to the sequence: they function as vaguely representative bellwethers of the mood of various bits of the country. After Iowa (the Midwestern heartland) and New Hampshire (New England), the votes move through South Carolina (the South), Nevada (the West), and Florida (the big, important states with concentrations of people, economic power and culture) before bursting on “Super Tuesday” when a dozen or more states all vote at the same time.
The process usually unfurls with a certain theatricality. Iowa and New Hampshire get long exposure to the candidates as they campaign there for months before the first votes, and their voters usually consider them very carefully before deciding who to vote for. The candidates, in turn, get time to hone their messages and prove their campaigning and fundraising mettle. There aren’t many delegates up for grabs in the early states, but after the first few votes a pattern of victories emerges as voters and donors coalesce around one of the candidates and the others’ supporters lose confidence. Usually, whoever wins Super Tuesday the most convincingly knocks out the other candidates, and gathering the rest of the delegates for the convention becomes a mere formality. Occasionally the voting goes on much longer.
So that’s the process. Candidates for the nomination of each party compete in the primaries to win delegates for the nominating convention, and whoever gets the most becomes the presidential nominee for their party. Since the nominees are the most important factors in deciding the general election, the primaries are therefore of crucial importance.
So who are the people hoping to become President? Check back later for my run-down of the candidates and their chances.

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