American politics 101: The primaries

American politics 101: The primaries

Grace Segers explains the US primary elections for us oblivious limeys.

To those unfamiliar with the American political system, the 2016 presidential election may seem confusing. Why are the candidates campaigning now, when the election is still over a year away? Who are the key players, and what are their principles? Most importantly, will Donald Trump be the next president of the United States?

Don’t worry, we have you covered.

The Big Picture

In the United States, there are two major political parties: the Republicans and the Democrats. The Republicans are like the British Conservative Party circa 1914 and the Democrats are effectively Tories talking like Labour.

In November 2016, one Republican and one Democratic candidate will square off in the presidential election. But first, the Republicans and Democrats need to choose who their respective nominees will be.

Currently, there are 15 people running to be the Republican nominee, and three to be the Democratic nominee. In order to choose the candidates there are primary elections for each party in each state, which party members attend. However, party members can only vote for a candidate within their party in the primary election.

For example, the New Hampshire primary will be on 9 February 2016: registered Republican voters living in New Hampshire can only vote in the Republican primary and for only one candidate to become official nominee. This process, for both parties, takes most of the summer.

Essentially, the candidate who wins the most primaries will become the party’s nominee. The Republican and Democratic Parties hold conventions at the end of the summer, in which their official candidates will be declared.

Since the first primaries occur in early 2016, candidates begin campaigning in mid-2015 so they can extend their influence and “name recognition” in the key early-primary states. This is why a lot of candidates campaign heavily in New Hampshire, a very small state where not much happens, and Iowa, a medium size state where nothing ever happens. Iowa has its caucus on 1 February, and the New Hampshire primary will be held eight days later. If a certain candidate wins these early-primary states, it is considered an indicator of the strength of their campaign, and may influence the primary election results in other states.

The “Grand Old Party”

A lot of people want to be the Republican nominee, falling into, essentially, two camps: establishment and anti-establishment candidates. The establishment candidates include such players as Governors Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. These hopefuls have a background in government, and are hoping to use their political experience as a selling point.

Challenging them are the more entertaining anti-establishment candidates, including Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson—people with no political expertise, but the inflammatory rhetoric to make up for it. Some specific targets of their ire include Obamacare, same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and any legislation which results from compromise with Democrats. They all lack experience because naturally the radically conservative members of the Republican Party are mistrustful of government, and political experience is seen as a detriment rather than a boon.

Trump probably won’t win the primary elections, because he is chiefly appealing to the extremist wing of the Republican Party. While this faction does have a decent number of supporters, most Republicans want like to see a more moderate candidate as nominee. Ultimately, the primaries will probably swing towards an establishment candidate who is still able to appeal to the conservative masses. It remains unclear who this candidate might be; Jeb Bush, who was once the presumptive nominee, is now declining in the polls. While Donald Trump isn’t likely to disappear any time soon, his momentum will probably not carry him through the primaries, unless the Republican Party is far more extremist than anyone has predicted.

In the blue corner

On the Democratic side of the presidential race, there’s a similar battle between the more centrist Hillary Clinton and the radically liberal, anti-establishment Bernie Sanders. While Sanders (previously an independent) has been gaining unexpected support throughout the campaign season, he is still unlikely to win the nomination, because he is simply too liberal for the mainstream American voter.

When analysing American politics, you’ve got to think in the context of the system. A candidate who seems to be popular now could fizzle out in a matter of months because he (or even she this time) is only considered electable to a portion of the party. It’s always hard to make predictions – given the extended nature of the presidential election, and the increased polarisation of the American public, anything can happen.

Once you understand the party and primary system, however, it becomes easier to make educated guesses about which candidates will fail and which will earn their parties’ nominations.

As for the current race – well it’s still anyone’s to win.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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