How to Understand What the Hell Is Going on With the US Presidential Election
There’s something a little bit disappointing about being an American living abroad during a presidential election year... it’s sort of like not going home for the holidays, even though you know that your racist uncle will end up fighting with your cousin (who’s a vegan), and that by the end of it, everyone will end up resenting the entire rest of the family. As traumatic as these things can be, it still feels sad to be left out.
Fortunately, it’s been a real hot dumpster fire of an election so far, and most people I meet here in London have one question: what the hell is going on over there? So here, dear people of the UK, are the most important things you need to know about the US presidential election to understand what’s been going down across the pond.
This isn't even the real election yet
I know, right? It’s been 12-and-a-half months since the first candidate officially threw his hat into the ring for the 2016 race, and Americans are still not even close to electing a president. But just so we’re clear: almost all of the coverage you see now is about the two main political parties in the US just choosing their nominee. The general election officially starts late this summer, after the parties have their national conventions (think Comic-Con crossed with Wrestlemania... but with worse celebrities).
The nominees are chosen by party delegates, not the people
There are many elements of American elections that look like democracy in action, but really aren’t, and the primaries are a big one. The primaries might resemble actual elections, but I find it more useful to think of them as a less-interesting version of the Cones of Dunshire (complete with silly hats). The rules aren’t completely arbitrary, but the easiest way to handle the whole situation is to just accept the rules at face value. Why did Iowa and New Hampshire go first? Why do some states have primaries and others have caucuses? There are answers to these questions, but they won’t help you better understand what’s going on. Just roll with it.
The first thing to accept blindly is that primary voters aren’t choosing a nominee, they’re choosing the delegates their state is going to send to each party’s national conventions over the summer, and each state has different rules for how their primary translates into delegates. For instance, Florida’s Republican Party gives all of its delegates to whomever won the most votes (in this case, Donald Trump, who won 100% of Florida’s delegates with only 46% of the vote). Meanwhile, Pennsylvania gives 17 of its delegates proportionally to the statewide winner... while the other 54 are chosen in each congressional district, and can vote however they want at the convention.
All by way of saying: candidate who gets the most votes ≠ nominee. If you want to see who’s ahead, don’t count the popular votes, count the delegates.
The actual nomination won't happen until the conventions
Normally, at this point in the election cycle, either a candidate has won enough pledged delegates (50% of the total number of delegates + one) that they will have clinched the nomination... or everyone else has dropped out of the race. Either way, months before the big party conventions that take place in the summer, the parties have a pretty good idea of who their nominee is going to be. But of course, this year is so far from normal that even Bear Grylls couldn’t find his way back to it. The Democrats are having a real soul-searching about the future of their party, and the Republicans are basically having a Charlie Sheen-level meltdown.
There have been exceptions to the normal run of things in the last century, but in the modern primary era, neither party has had what’s called a "contested convention" (sometimes called a "brokered convention"), which is a scenario in which none of the candidates are able to get a majority of delegates on the first ballot. When this happens, "superdelegates" (the Republicans call them "uncommitted delegates," but that’s super-boring) can play a crucial role in deciding the nominee. These are party dignitaries like former presidents, members of Congress, and governors, and many of them have already publicly declared their support for a candidate (most delegate counts include superdelegates). Of course, nothing forces these delegates to vote the way they’ve said they will.
So basically, this year’s conventions are going to be B-A-N-A-N-A-S. In a normal year, the conventions end up feeling like four-day infomercials for the chosen candidate, and while there are also debates about the party platform and sometimes some great speeches, on the whole they’re known for being a bit inevitable. But this year...
The Democrats are still too close to call
Hillary Clinton was supposed to glide into the nomination like a little kid wearing socks on a recently waxed floor. But when no other serious Democratic contender was forthcoming, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (who prior to this race was technically an Independent, not a member of the Democratic Party) threw his hat into the ring. Let’s look at their profiles:
Former experience: Senator from New York, Secretary of State
Greatest strength: tough as nails, and has a reputation for getting shit done
Greatest weakness: she’s been in politics a long time, and has the baggage that comes with that, including ties to big corporations. Also, being a lady probably isn’t helping things (like the UK, America hasn’t exactly kicked sexism yet).
Currently the Democratic frontrunner, Clinton was originally seen as taking the nomination for granted, and didn’t anticipate the revolutionary appetite her opponent is currently satisfying, especially in young Democrats. Still, at the moment, she has more popular votes, delegates, AND superdelegates supporting her. Plus, Kate McKinnon is killing it in her SNL spoofs of her.
Former experience: Senator, Congressman from Vermont; Mayor of Burlington, VT.
Greatest strength: grassroots populist enthusiasm and financial support
Greatest weakness: publicly identifies as a socialist, which in America is still probably not cool
When Obama was first elected, his campaign bubbled with the excitement of a grassroots movement, which drew on the collaborative power of community organizing and the energetic support of youth culture. Despite Clinton’s close working relationship with the current US President, Sanders seems to have captured the energy of Obama’s campaign. Still, he’s in a tricky place in the delegate math: unless he starts winning big in some of the final states, he won’t be able to stop her at the convention (his loss in New York last week was a big blow to his chances). Regardless, his presence in the race has brought Hillary to the left on several key issues. Bonus: his SNL spoofs are courtesy of Larry David.
The Republican Party is kind of freaking out
For all the nail-biting going on on the left, there’s a lot of running around and screaming on the right. The Republicans (often called the GOP or the Grand Old Party) have split between populist and establishment lines, and nobody really knows how it’s going to pan out. The last men standing:
Former experience: real estate impresario, businessman, The Apprentice host, putter of names on things
Greatest strength: mouth
Greatest weakness: mouth
The Donald was pooh-poohed by nearly everyone in the pundit class when he first announced his candidacy, and now they’ve all had to eat their words because he’s the frontrunner. The only Americans who aren’t stunned by this are the ones who are voting for him, and the party establishment is frantic to prevent him from getting nominated; the GOP are terrified he’ll hurt the Senators and Congressmen who are also up for election in November. It’s unclear if he’ll get enough delegates before the convention to clinch the nomination, but if he doesn’t, the Party will probably use every parliamentary trick up their sleeves to stop him (superdelegates to the rescue!).
Former experience: Senator from Texas
Greatest strength: isn’t Donald Trump
Greatest weakness: some consider him just as bad... or worse
While Donald Trump may get most of the attention for holding atypical positions and making eyebrow-raising statements, Cruz is almost equally disliked by the GOP establishment (not to mention most left-leaning voters). The son of a Baptist preacher, Cruz believes his candidacy is a mission from God, and if elected, wants to repeal nationalized health care and build a wall on the border with Mexico.
Former experience: Governor of Ohio, Congressman
Greatest strength: appears sane
Greatest Weakness: who is he, again?
During the GOP debates last fall, Kasich’s comments felt like a breath of fresh air. He’s been branded as the moderate, sensible Republican option (though this clip from former Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee catalogs some of his harder-right positions), but short of some weird delegate magic at the convention (which, I should say, isn’t impossible), this guy isn’t getting anywhere near the nomination.
Once the conventions are over, the real fight begins
Coming out of the conventions, two important decisions should be made for each party: who their nominee is, and who that nominee has picked as a running mate for Vice President. This may seem unimportant, but VP nominees can often have a big (and weird) effect on elections. (Case in point: Sarah Palin.) In fact, the VP is often really important as a member of the campaign; but once in office, there’s not a whole lot for the VP to do. The most famous summation of this comes from VP John Nance Gardner, who described the Vice Presidency as "not being worth a bucket of warm piss."
Once the VP is in place, however, you’ll see the candidates spread out across the country to try and get votes. You can expect tacky campaign ads from both parties, attacks on the other party (ditto)... basically, it’ll be a real bloodbath.
Ah yes, the polls, or: how the math nerds have won
Ever since he started his site FiveThirtyEight.com in March 2008, Nate Silver has transformed the way that people think about polls and the presidential election. Using fancy maths that I don’t pretend to understand, Silver was able to provide startlingly accurate predictions both for the national popular vote AND the Electoral College... not to mention correctly predicting every Senate race. If you like knowing what’s going on before it happens (and aren’t afraid of angering the gods), pay attention to FiveThirtyEight; it's especially good at helping sort out useful polls from useless ones. For instance: any head-to-head matchups you see now about who will win in November are more or less rubbish.
When to pay attention and when to look away
In case you don’t want the election taking over your brainspace, here are the key times to take a peek at what’s going on to stay in the loop:
- Tuesday, April 26: second-to-last big chunk of delegates handed out
- Tuesday, June 7: last day of primaries, lots of delegates up for grabs; this is when Hillary may clinch the nomination
- End of July: Democratic and Republican Conventions; Bernie’s pledged to take his case all the way to the Dem Convention, and WHO KNOWS what the GOP Convention will look like.
- October: presidential debates. Again, less exciting for their actual content than for their parody inspiration.
- Tuesday, November 8: Election day; seems so far away that it might as well be a dream.
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Charlie Beckerman has seen all four Sorkin seasons of The West Wing like, nine times, which is almost as good as a political science degree, right? When he’s not breaking down presidential elections, he’s often breaking down 24th-century fashion over at Fashion It So, the internet’s preeminent Star Trek: The Next Generation fashion blog.