Friday 11 March 2016

Assorted US Election Thoughts

I've tried to compose posts on the US elections, but it's hard to know where to begin. We are witnessing a grandiose collision of money, power and spectacle that only the United States of America could achieve.

"What's happened to the American Dream?"
"It came true. You're lookin' at it!"

If the Comedian were a real person, he'd be loving this. And probably working for Donald Trump.

Here are some thoughts on the latest developments, in no particular order.

Hillary vs Bernie

It looks like this one will be resolved in favour of Hillary, but it's going to take a while. Delegates in the Democratic contests are allocated proportionately. On a state-by-state basis, most of Bernie's wins have been narrow, while many of Hillary's have been blowouts. On Tuesday, Bernie won Michigan with 49.8% of the vote; Hillary won Mississippi with a stupendous 82.6%. Mississippi is the smaller state, but Clinton's victory was so lopsided that taking the two contests together, she won 90 delegates to Bernie's 71.

Of course the Democrats have a negligible chance of winning Mississippi in November. It's still meaningful and important to hold a primary there. It underscores the fact that the USA is still a single country. The residents of Mississippi are Americans, and 44% of those who voted in 2012 chose Barack Obama. Furthermore, no state's ownership is carved in stone. Virginia had not been won by a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson's landslide in 1964... until Obama won it, twice. It's a bad idea for a national party to give up entirely on any party of the country, and that goes for the Republicans too.

Democratic primaries in deep-red Republican states can still provide interesting data about likely outcomes in the general election. For instance, it seems that Clinton has an advantage in turning out the black and Latino vote. They are a key part of the Democratic coalition, and this is an area where Sanders struggles.

I find it interesting that 1.9% of votes in the Michigan Democratic primary were cast for "other". Maybe Martin O'Malley is getting some traction with people who like neither of the remaining options, several weeks after he dropped out. Otherwise they may be casting write-in votes for Joe Biden or Mickey Mouse.

Bernie is winning enough that Hillary has to take him seriously, but not so many that he is likely to overtake her. This may be for the best. I like Bernie a lot. I think if he somehow got in, he'd make a good President, maybe a better one than Hillary, although his freedom of action would be severely constrained by Congress. At the very least, he's ensuring Hillary doesn't take the progressive vote for granted.

That said, I'm just not sure the USA is ready to elect a 74 year-old Jewish socialist as its President. Hillary Clinton is a very flawed candidate, but my gut feeling is that she's better prepared to stand up to the Republican attack machine. They painted the decorated combat veteran John Kerry as soft on defence; what would they do with Sanders' lengthy record of left-wing activism?

Admittedly, the Democrats have learned since 2004. Maybe Sanders could rise above the Republican attacks, and maybe not. I'm not sure it's a wise gamble to take, because the consequences of the Democrats losing this election are almost too hideous to contemplate.


Holy fucking shit.

This ridiculous egomaniac is within striking distance of the White House. The Presidency of the United States of America. Commander-in-Chief of a military whose budget equals that of the rest of the planet combined, and which deploys thousands of nuclear weapons. An executive who has to be entrusted with secrets, to make grave decisions, to appoint powerful officials, to handle sensitive negotiations at home and abroad.

It's legitimately terrifying.

No one so manifestly unqualified has ever come this close to the Presidency. The closest modern example is Wendell Willkie, a businessman who never held elected office. He was the Republican nominee in the 1940 election, in which he was crushed by Franklin D Roosevelt on his way to a third term. But compared to Trump, Willkie was a model of sober, well-informed and responsible judgment.

There have been other bigots who said insane things, like Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum. There have been other billionaires with more money than sense, such as Steve Forbes. Trump is marching inexorably forward where they vanished without a trace.

He combines great personal wealth, a total disregard for decency, and a rare talent for showmanship. He is entirely loathsome, but his career in reality TV has prepared him well for this moment. He can capture the attention of the media, in a way none of his rivals can match.

Trump's other great advantage is that he speaks to fears of economic insecurity. Ever since Reagan, the Republicans have told their voters the glories of tax cuts and unrestrained capitalism will make everything turn out for the best in this best of all possible worlds. It worked for a while, but an understanding is taking hold that it isn't necessarily so. Many voters are angry, frightened and desperate, and have every reason to be. They are a receptive audience for Trump's promises to punish corporations for moving jobs abroad. Thomas Frank, author of What's The Matter With Kansas?, has written a very interesting piece exploring this.

Trump is alarmingly talented at campaigning to become President. I don't think he has any idea what he would do if he actually became President. Maybe the US system would be stable enough to stop him from doing anything too destructive, and maybe not.

Trump, the independent?

There is talk of Trump running as an independent if he fails to secure the Republican nomination. If he did so, he would almost certainly split the right-wing vote and allow the Democrat to win comfortably. However, it wouldn't be entirely straightforward to do so.

A quick glance at Ballotpedia indicates that the criteria for becoming a Presidential nominee vary by state, but are typically complex and difficult. This is intentional, to stop the American equivalent of the Monster Raving Loony Party from running. A candidate must collect large numbers of signatures in each state, often in the tens of thousands.

The Republican convention is on 18-21 July. By then, registration deadlines will have already passed for twelve states, including big ones like Texas and Florida. The last state deadlines are on the 9th of September. Even with Trump's wealth, the realistic window for him to get on the ballot is closing quickly.

Trump could still run as a write-in candidate. He would find this particularly difficult, as many of his followers have not mastered writing.

(All sarcasm aside, write-in candidates are at a real disadvantage; the importance of having your name on the official ballot paper is not to be underestimated.)

Cruz, and the others

Ted Cruz is the only Republican who comes close to Trump in primary vote totals. He also may be the only one who is more terrifying.

Trump believes in whatever is good for Trump. Cruz has a very specific set of beliefs in utterly barking mad, hard right-wing ideology and religious doctrine. He is also loathed by his entire party establishment, so mercifully he will not have their help to achieve the Republican nomination. If Cruz did by some chance become President, I think there is a very real chance he would intentionally destroy the American government as we know it.

Given the choice between a narcissist and a fanatic as leader, I would reluctantly take the narcissist.

From the bloated initial field of seventeen candidates, only Rubio and Kasich are left standing, to vie for the title of Sane Candidate. It appears the Republican primary voters are in no mood for sanity. Rubio and Kasich are splitting what moderate vote there is, and leaving the field to Trump and Cruz.

The Republican party's best interest lies in having a nominee who is not Trump, and not Cruz. Either one is probably unelectable in November, and likely to drag the party's other candidates down with him. (It's the uncertainty in that statement which makes them so worrying.)

The party's best chance of achieving this is to have a brokered convention, in which no candidate achieves an overall majority on the first ballot. This is looking like a realistic possibility, so interesting times lie ahead.

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