U.S. Election: The Primary Process (part II)


Don DeBats, Flinders University

I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.”

But the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary will choose only about two percent of the delegates to each national convention.

So these early primaries are not about delegate numbers. That comes later. On March 1, usually termed “Super Tuesday,” but this year to be enthusiastically known as “Super Duper Tuesday,” the Republicans will chose over 23 percent of their convention delegates and the Democrats a like percentage.

That is then. Right now what Iowa and New Hampshire are all about can be reduced to two words: viability and momentum. Sure, anything can happen, and does. BUT a candidate from either party who loses, and loses badly in both of these early voting states, begins to resemble the increasingly desperate poker player looking to draw an “inside straight:” the path to victory in July begins to narrow, the ways of winning the nomination begin to diminish, and writing begins to be perceptible on a distant wall. A candidate who wins both contests, on the other hand, has demonstrated viability and establishes momentum.

That was the plan. A measure of things not going to plan is ever-so-evident in both parties. On the Republican side, Donald Trump began as a joke, and while retaining that mantle, has a chance of becoming the party’s candidate – to the chagrin, regret, deep anger, and sorrow of the party’s “establishment” who long held the view that Jeb (John Ellis Bush) was the “inevitable” candidate.

The “inevitable” Democratic contender has encountered exactly the same disaffection for the “insider.” Hillary Clinton is low on the likability score, as then-candidate Obama cruelly put it in their struggle for the 2008 nomination: “likeable enough,” he said. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “socialist” (he’s not), is, like Trump, the candidate of the “anger wing” of the two parties: those tired of verbiage, tired of the same old names, tired of the establishment and, in many cases, suffering greatly in a recession that refuses to end.

Contests for national party positons conducted through primaries or caucuses tend to excite and enthuse the fringes: this year the leading Republican candidates represent two of their party’s wings — but not its core: the evangelical wing (Cruz) and the angry populists (Trump). Bernie Sanders represents a similar kind of fringe liberal-outsider challenge to Hillary Clinton. In both parties, the “inevitable” candidates are left gasping. If the outsiders win, the primary system will indeed produce very important political change – take that Boss Tweed.

One final thought: the Iowa and New Hampshire contests are best thought of as being halfway between the positioning and image-making that has gone on for months and months in the US election cycle and the real business of numbers and convention delegates which will follow in a few weeks. It is for that reason that these two contests, different in almost every manner, are very much about who loses. Losing, at this stage of the American political game, is best defined as not meeting expectations. What does that mean? Not necessarily numbers but perceptions: the media will tell us (trust me). If Hillary Clinton “loses” both Iowa and New Hampshire, the way may indeed open for a new, last- minute challenger (but who?); equally if Trump is trumped, one of the long-struggling “establishment candidates,” such as Bush or Rubio, might suddenly see daylight and the chance for a run.

Of course a dual “win” for Trump and for Clinton would demonstrate viability and create momentum for them; that is what these first contests discern and bestow. In doing so, the outcome of the votes in Iowa and New Hampshire will go a long way, perhaps further than they should, to determine the two presidential candidates who finally will meet on Election Day: Tuesday, November 8.

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