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A Democratic donnybrook

  • Published at 05:00 pm January 24th, 2020
Photo: Reuters

The chaos of the US general election is working in Trump’s favour 

Which Democrat is going to take on Donald Trump this November in the American presidential general election is a question as wide open as the mid-American prairies of the upper Midwest, where the election will likely be decided. 

Notwithstanding the animated prognostications of pundits -- real and self-appointed -- who regularly appear on cable talk shows and glossy magazine bylines, the quality of the candidates, and the very nature of the Democratic intra-party nominating contest (often erroneously dubbed a “primary”), make it almost impossible to make a prediction at this point.

None of the major candidates vying for the nomination have the complete package of qualities that would put one in the overwhelming favourite place: Joe Biden has experience and name recognition, but is older and prone to gaffes and inspires more acceptance than enthusiasm.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren fire up the Democratic base but turn off many moderates with their socialist-sounding policy proposals.

Pete Buttigieg has a polished resume in the military and business, but is young, gay, and has never run anything beyond a town smaller than Jessore.

Michael Bloomberg has a lot of money and ran the world’s commercial capital once, but has limited connections to the party faithful. 

As for the rest, well, they are still trying to break into the “majors.”

Complicating the picture is the labyrinth nature of the intra-party nominating process that selects presidential nominee in the US, especially when a party is out of power in the White House. 

Unlike systems like China or Bangladesh or Cuba, here it is a very bottom up and pluralist process where each state uses a different set of rules to select delegates who ultimately select the nominee at the national party convention in the summer. 

While colloquially the overall process is called the “primary,” only some of the states use a primary, which is simply an election where registered party members vote at the ballot boxes.

Others use caucuses where party faithful have to show up in neighbourhood meetings in person to select local delegates who then select national delegates. A few states use conventions whereby the broadest party assembly gets together to decide on delegates. 

There are even a few states where some mixture of these three sets of rules is used. Some rules predicate a winner-take-all, some proportional representation, some weighted by legislative constituency boundaries, and some a blend of more than one of these apportionment approaches. 

As a professor of mine often told us, and we repeated to our students later on, national elections in America -- be it the general or the intra-party ones -- are not truly “national” in the sense that other democracies use the term, never mind the authoritarian systems like the ones mentioned earlier.

Rather, they are aggregates of almost 60 different regional elections (one each for the 50 states, Washington DC, and the US territories like across the oceans). Confusing, isn’t it?

Add to that maddening confusion the fact that by custom -- as endorsed by the leadership of both parties -- the states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada go first.  

Those who do well, or at least beat expectations in two or more of these, come out with a momentum to raise money and fight out the other big contests in the much more populous states like Florida, Michigan, New York, and Texas. 

What we can cautiously posit is that if the same candidate wins two out of those first four contests -- and Iowa is in about two weeks -- then that individual will become the front-runner, though by no means unstoppable. 

In the absence of a sitting president vying for re-nomination, as is the case with President Trump and his Republican party, it is rare to find a shoo-in, odds-on, overwhelming favourite for a party’s presidential nomination in these modern times. 

Such an heir apparent is even rarer in the Democratic Party which has a larger set of interests, demographic groups, and diverse constituencies in its electoral coalition. 

Hence the idea that Joe Biden by virtue of being the last serving Democratic vice-president, or Bernie Sanders as the runner-up in the 2016 nominating contest, will be the automatic front-runner is, at best, exaggerated.

All this works in favour of President Trump who, with only token opposition on the Republican side, can raise money and spend it against Democrats in general while Democrats are spending almost all the money they raise in going after their fellow Democrats in the nominating contest. 

The Democrat who emerges from the nominating hustings to face Donald Trump will have an opponent in the general election who has more money for campaigning than any other presidential nominee in history, and who has perfected the art of turning cultural resentment into a tsunami of votes in the right places.

While we do not know the favourite in the Democratic nominating contest, a healthy economy, gargantuan fundraising, and ability to tap perfectly into populist resentment are strong signals that the general election in November does have a favourite, and his name is Donald Trump. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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