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Australian perspective of candidates for USA President

January 31, 2016

31 January 2015

In two days it starts in Iowa, voting for the next President of the United States of America. Why should an Australian care? Only because US politics is the most exciting TV ever. Many may have heard the expression “Politics is show business for ugly people”. It’s true. Particularly the part about show business. Whether those involved are ugly too, that is nobody’s business. Whatever floats your boat. I’ve been following it closely for 10 years now and, thanks to Donald Trump, this campaign has been the wackiest, funniest and the most intriguing race ever – and it’s only just started. Coincidentally, the 2012 Presidential election was the subject of first Warrior Factor posts.

Republican vs Democrat

Republican elephant vs Democrat donkey – interesting mascots

First, some information…

What’s the big deal about Iowa?

I asked this myself at one stage, as would most people that begin to take an interest. Iowa is the first state that begins the selection process for the Democratic and Republican nominees for president. It prides itself on being first, and will shuffle its caucus date forward if another state tries to jump ahead. It almost reached the point of farcical four years ago when nearly held in late December, before settling right after New Year’s. This year the Republican National Committee grabbed the reigns and set the dates, and set whether the state is winner take all or proportional.

Following Iowa, usually a week later, is New Hampshire. The reason for these small states is to give all candidates a realistic chance of competing. Small states means small budgets are sufficient and most of the campaigning involves trying to hit every town and precinct, and talking directly with the voters. The change this cycle that the early states are all proportional in awarding delegates (win 20% of the vote, you get 20% of that state’s delegates at the convention), also means candidates can survive a bit longer – theoretically up to “Super Tuesday” on March 1, where 14 states hit the polls. Delegates are the people that actually go to the conventions and nominate the party’s candidate.

Caucus or Primary

A primary is a conventional election, and can be open to anyone, or only to registered voters of a party. It’s simply a matter of voting for the preferred candidate at a polling location. In New Hampshire, because it’s an open primary, often moderates do better. People of NH also have a rogue streak, as evidenced by their state motto of “Live free or die”, so like to vote for someone that didn’t win Iowa.

A caucus is only open to registered party members (registering on the day is usually possible), involves meeting at a school hall, a local church or even someone’s house (if it’s a remote area and numbers are very low) and hearing from representatives and supporters rally for each candidate, before voting begins. The process can last a few hours. While Republicans decide by a conventional ballot, Democrats form themselves into groups representing each candidate. Then they try convince people from other groups to join their group. A candidate with less than 15% of the people in their group is not deemed “viable”, so those people have the option of moving to another group. Once this is all finished, a count is taken. It’s democracy at its rawest.

Because of this unusual process, turn-outs are very low – not even 20% of the electorate, therefore those typically attending are highly knowledgeable or invested in the process. Candidates that skew very left or right and can energise their supporters, often do well. Also important to know is delegates are awarded by precincts won. A rural caucus might only need 10% of the people a city one might need to win it, so mobilising support throughout the precincts is far more important than raw numbers in total across the state. With the inherent volatility of the caucus process, a caucus state can also become very strategic and mathematical, and therefore notoriously difficult to predict.

Nominating the Presidential candidate

Each party has a convention middle of the year where the delegates won in each state are officially awarded to the candidate. The candidate with most delegates wins. Smaller states obviously have much fewer delegates than bigger states, so it’s generally expected that by the time the big states do have their primaries, particularly with “winner take all” in play, there’s only two or so candidates left in the race so a clear winner will emerge. If not, that the number of delegates won is below the threshold, then it’s a brokered convention where the delegates ignore the result from their state and decide the nominee themselves.


THE DEMOCRATS

Only once in the last 50 years has the same party won three successive presidential terms, so the Democrats will need to make history. A two term president needs to leave office with high approval ratings – at least in the 60s – as happened with Ronald Regan in 1988, to give their party a chance. Arguably the Democrats would have succeeded in 2000 after Bill Clinton had they nominated someone not so pathetic as Al Gore. In 2016, President Barack Obama’s approval is currently in the low 40s.

Hillary Clinton

The inevitable candidate four years ago, and supposedly the inevitable candidate again. So much so that she scared most serious Democrats from running and leaving a rabble as her competition. The Democrats have not helped themselves by quarantining Clinton from scrutiny by scheduling only a handful of debates, and at odd times (against NFL playoffs!), and against candidates afraid to attack her, which has disappointed many party supporters at this apparent “coronation” process. Coupled with an email scandal, Clinton’s trust levels have declined and her inevitability seems not so inevitable. She should still make it, with a strong lead nationally, and has been outstanding in the debates at the rare times needed. She’s running as Obama’s third term so is banking on the support he garnered so well from minority communities. She obviously hopes to win big with women despite dropping the incessant “I’m a woman, vote for me” rhetoric because it became oh so cynical and condescending.

The email scandal holds her destiny. This scandal emerged after an investigation into the terrorist attacks on the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, revealing Clinton was using a private server to store confidential emails. She’s only made the situation worse for herself by not handing over the server immediately, and then caught lying, and lying, and lying again. At first she said she had approval to use a personal account, then she said it was too difficult to have two devices (one personal, one government), then she was seen on old video using two devices, then she didn’t know how to set up two accounts on one device, then she said she never sent or received anything classified, then she clarified that as “marked classified”, and then whether it was marked classified at the time. Upon handing over the server, it was discovered she deleted thousands of emails. She said they were all personal ones. Then the FBI discovered many were not, to which she recited the word gymnastics about being marked classified. Legally, information is classified by its nature, not by its markings. It’s ridiculous, and unfortunate, because she’d be an interesting president. Even if the scandal disappears, the Republicans have a wealth of material to attack her trustworthiness.

Bernie Sanders

A senator from Vermont, he’s the most honest politician of the lot, except for his description of a Democratic Socialist. Is that socialist that somehow gets elected? He’s a socialist, point blank, and has garnered huge support, particularly from younger people with his stance against wealth inequality, “casino capitalism” and demands for universal free healthcare, free college education and paid parental leave. Individual political donations are at record levels, indicating a massive and enthusiastic grassroots support. His rallies overflow with people, and it’s difficult not to warm to this crusty old fart and his halting, talking style, and his “Feel the Bern” slogan. He’s been savvy too, ignoring Clinton’s email scandal, knowing the FBI investigation will do the job for him. Any indictment will destroy her, so no reason for Bernie to get involved – not that any Democratic voters care about the issue.

With the polls – even nationally – sensationally tightening, the Democratic head honchos are worried at the prospect of Sanders being their nominee for president. He simply won’t be elected. The mere thought that health insurance companies will be banned so that the federal government controls individual healthcare is frightening to Americans. They also know taxes would need to rise astronomically, because taxing Wall Street speculations – as Sanders proposes to pay for some of his programs – won’t raise the revenue. Sanders has also made ridiculous statements to the level of Trump, like climate change “is directly related to the growth of terrorism” and “is the greatest threat to national security”. While the fringe will lap that up, moderates won’t, and certainly no one in the middle will.

At the last debate, the love-fest until this point finally ended, and the two goody two-shoes went at it. Now Clinton has demanded more debates to expose Sanders. She’s already using attack lines that Republicans would eventually use. It’s already way too late to stop Sanders winning his neighbouring state of New Hampshire, and likely too late for Iowa too. Bernie will mostly likely be 2-0 up and Hillary feeling a very uncomfortable Bern.

Martin O’Malley

Former governor of Maryland, he’s only in the race in hope Clinton is indicted so he becomes the mainstream nominee. He’s so weak that if Clinton was indicted, the Democrats would push current vice president Joe Biden into the race.

Lincoln Chafee

Quit his campaign in October after the first debate. Arguably he had the best policy of any candidate: bring the USA in line with the rest of the world and adopt the metric system! He’s a former governor of Rhode Island.

Jim Webb

An old style “conservative Democrat”, there’s no constituency in the early states for such a candidate. The Vietnam Veteran and former senator of Virginia quietly disappeared after the first debate.


THE REPUBLICANS

Four years ago, most announcements about the Republican race came from those saying they would NOT run. This time, smelling blood in the water, it seemed everybody was announcing a run, including a Geraldo Rivera’s moustache, a box of bicarbonate of soda, and a swarm of killer bees. Eventually the monster field settled at 17, which included successful governors, senators, business people and a world famous doctor.

Donald Trump

The unthinkable is happening, that the candidate initially considered a joke, still leads most polls six months later and is likely to win the first two states. After that, no one may stop him. He’s succeeded with a combination of upsetting the political establishment and by dismantling key rivals with subtle jibes and pointed innuendo. The outrageous statements he’s made are more about building his anti-establishment clout than actual policies. There’s no way he’ll deport 12 million illegal immigrants and ask them to apply legally; there’s no way he’ll put a 45% tariff on Chinese imports; and, there’s no way he’ll shut the borders to all muslims. It’s the very fact he’s prepared – and does – make these statement that he’s gained popularity. Other stunts like boycotting the recent debate on Fox News only validates the unorthodox style of his campaign, and endearing him further with his supporters.

Trump has also succeeded by a calculated destruction of key opponents, notably Jeb Bush by calling him “low energy”, while Ted Cruz’s poll numbers fell in Iowa after suggestions his birthplace of Canada affects his eligibility to be president. While neither of these have much substance, they are enough to provide doubt and validate a personal perception or belief. He’s now getting serious endorsements, including from Sarah Palin, which must rank as TV comedy moment of the year. Check the vision on youtube where Palin introduces a new word: “squirmishes”. That apparently means a squeamish skirmish. After Trump battered Cruz’s persona by saying he’s a “maniac” and “nasty” and “no one likes him”, the endorsement by Palin was strategically timed to hit Cruz with another, hopefully fatal, blow – this time against his status as the choice for core conservatives – ahead of the Iowa caucus.

In recent weeks, Trump has been more deft with his comments, and toned down the rhetoric. Pushing his slogan of “Make America great again”, his great claim is that American will start “winning” again and he’ll be a “deal maker”. After years of hyper partisanship and deadlock and a perception America is in decline, that is resonating.  Not just with Republicans, it’s also designed to win moderate Democrats and plenty of new voters. The lack of specific policies doesn’t matter, as it didn’t eight years ago when Obama triumphed with little more than grandiose rhetoric and “hope and change”. For the vast bulk of the electorate, simple messages and cliches work. Trump will win New Hampshire, is now leading in Iowa, and has a big lead in the third state to vote, South Carolina. He’s now talking about running the table (winning every state).

Ted Cruz

This is the real scary candidate. A hardline conservative Senator from Texas, he’s been very unpopular in the senate with his intransigence and politically calculated vote switching, killing several key bills and almost causing a government shutdown. He seems to think there’s a huge conservative block that stayed home for the last two elections and are ready to sweep him into office. While he has a point that many were dissuaded by the party nominating moderates, he overestimates their number and underestimates the number of independents and disenchanted Democrats that he’ll alienate in the process. Any Democrat would have beaten any Republican in 2008 such was the unpopularity of George W Bush, while Obama was aided by a sudden improvement in job numbers, Hurricane Sandy and a placid opponent. Cruz’s hardline stance on illegal immigrants won’t wash. Most Americans want some sort of legal path (not amnesty) for those in the country already, particular if the border is secured to prevent revisiting the issue in another 20 years. Cruz led the polls for Iowa until he became Trump’s next play thing. Now he’s just behind, and lags way behind in all other early states. Amazingly, Iowa could be his Waterloo, and a loss there could see him swiftly ejected from the campaign. That is Trump’s aim before he moves onto the next threat…

Marco Rubio

The “Obama” of the Republicans, young, eloquent and poised. Even more important, he’s excelled in the debates, displaying his breadth of knowledge and deftly countering attacks, particularly against Jeb Bush. A senator from Florida, a state the Republicans must win, he swept into office on the so-called “Tea Party wave” mid-term election of 2010 and should find a path through if either Trump or Cruz implode. Campaigning on uniting the party, he’s become the party’s mainstream hope, has the highest favourables of the leading candidates, and is seen as the most electable in a head to head contest against Hillary Clinton. His only weakness is being mired in the illegal immigrant debate, especially about amnesty for the those already illegally here. It’s mostly an argument over semantics, as the bill he pushed in 2008 was a long pathway to legalisation, not amnesty. For the record, the only difference between the Republican and Democratic positions on so-called “comprehensive immigration reform” is that the Republicans want a secure border first while the Democrats want it to stay porous. If Trump wins the nomination, it’s almost certain Rubio will be the vice presidential pick. He’ll be a great contrast and the Republicans must win Florida.

Jeb Bush

You haven’t met a more insipid and effeminate campaigner than Jeb Bush. The only reason he’s still around is he managed to raise over $100m from traditional, big spending Republican donors. He’s using much of that money now to attack his former protege and fellow Flordidian, Rubio, in TV advertisements, hoping to open the lane between Trump and Cruz. Bush’s big problem is he’s so pathetic, and his success as a former governor of Florida was too long ago to be of no consequence. His hunched posture with arms dangled and smirking professorial look shows weakness and condescension.

Ben Carson

World famous neurosurgeon, with a soft voice and is very polite. Perhaps too polite. One of the most bizarre moments of this race is his DEFENCE of claims in his book that he had such a bad temper that he attacked his mother with a hammer! The media researched these claims, including punching a classmate and stabbing a friend, and couldn’t find any witnesses. Oh no, Carson was effusive that he was so violent! After being near the top of the Iowa polls at one stage, his poor debate performances – particularly on foreign policy – has seen him collapse. The most recent Des Moines Register poll has seen him climb back to 10% and in fourth place. Remember candidates need 15% at a caucus event to be viable, so expect that transferred elsewhere. Carson will be gone after Iowa and probably seek a position in the Republican cabinet.

Chris Christie

His time was 4 years ago when Republicans were looking for someone to really stick it to Obama and he was the new star on the scene. The popular new governor of New Jersey back then, his numbers have fallen, and his bombastic style has been superceded by Trump. He’s a moderate, has ignored Iowa, and banking on a strong showing in New Hampshire, otherwise he’s gone.

John Kasich

Interesting he’s anglicised his slavic name of Kasic so it’s pronounced properly as “itch” and now people pronounce it as “ick”. An affable chap and the hugely successful governor of Ohio, he’s one that the Democrats fear if he gets the nomination. He’s a moderate, picking up the endorsement from the New York Times, has an outstanding record when he served in congress during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and Republicans win the Presidency when they win Ohio. Does that statistic matter as much if the candidate has a home-state advantage?

Rand Paul

A constitutional libertarian and a senator from Kentucky, Paul’s unwillingness to exclude the military in budget restraints simply won’t wash in a party obsessed with the biggest most powerful military possible. Especially not in this time of ISIS.

Carly Fiorina

The former CEO of Hewlett Packard, she impressed in the early debates, promoting herself as a woman of achievement and enjoying being with her husband compared to Clinton being a woman of lies and using her husband only for his name, before becoming a bit one dimensional. Her career at HP ended poorly and she’d have been hammered by Democratic attack ads in a presidential campaign. The Republican electorate has been wise to both of these factors, which has seen her numbers drop. She’ll be gone after Iowa. Look for her in a possible Republican cabinet.

Mike Huckabee

Former governor of Arkansas, he’s an interesting candidate, being an evangelical (and a former pastor) and a populist with a strident defence against any cuts to social security and medicare for those already paid in. He smashed it in Iowa 8 years ago and probably would have been the party’s nominee for president 4 years ago if he chose to give up his TV show and run. He’s driftwood this cycle.

Rick Santorum

The former senator from Pennyslvania won Iowa 4 years ago by just 34 votes, and only because he was last on the rung of “anyone except Mitt Romney” for evangelical conservatives. More driftwood.

The Rest

Jim Gilmore is still in it for some reason despite consistently registering less than 1% in the polls. George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Scott walker and Rick Perry have already withdrawn. Only Walker, governor of Wisconsin, was of consequence. Leading the Iowa polls at one stage, he claimed his withdrawal in September was so the party could rally around a handful of candidates. In reality, he was exposed for some inconsistent stances, and simply couldn’t cope with the robustness and scrutiny of a presidential campaign. The killer bees attacked Geraldo Rivera’s moustache, and he used a box of bicarbonate of soda to scare them away. That was the end of those three campaigns before they even started.


PREDICTION

After Iowa and New Hampshire, the field will be cut. The theory is there’s only 3 tickets out of Iowa, and that would be Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Kasich is currently second in New Hampshire and if he can maintain that, he’ll survive. Christie is the other option there. It will only be one of them. Let’s presume Kasich. Losing candidates will then begin to endorse those still in the race, most likely to either Rubio or Kasich. Cruz is unpopular and has barely picked up any endorsements of note from anyone, particularly from those already serving in government.

Even though Sanders will most likely win the first two states and provide a fright for Clinton, expect to see her triumph. Remember, delegates in these early states are proportional by vote %, not a “winner take all” situation. Any lead in delegates by Sanders will be small, and he’ll likely be in deficit after the third state of South Carolina. Expect O’Malley to drop out after NH and endorse Clinton. The Democrats will hope nothing will come from the email scandal, and scheduling extra debates will snuff out the challenge from Sanders. Sanders’ big advantage is that it will be a two horse race, therefore he will long have a ready made constituency of Democrats not interested in Clinton.

The one great flaw with the US system is the world can be vastly different when a candidate finally becomes president. Obama’s mantra was to end the Iraq War and transform America with a bunch of social programs, and to address CO2 emissions. By the time Obama was president, Iraq was already resolved and he had to deal with a recession. The economy controlled his entire reign, to the point his only social program to pass (after much fighting) was The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which was a messy system to spread health insurance by ways of subsidising insurance companies and expanding state based healthcare for poorer people (medicaid). He wasted two years of 100% control of congress over that, ignoring other promises like immigration, CO2 and, his latest fad, of gun control. He was the wrong president at the wrong time, and arguably America would be better off now had Clinton won in 2008, and Obama following now.

The lack of progress by Obama also highlights the truth about American presidents: they have little real power. Like in Australia, congress (parliament) writes laws, not the president. They only sign them. Even with a Democratic controlled congress, Obama faced obstruction. When the Republicans took control of the lower house in the 2010 mid-terms, he was ostensibly a lame duck. The people, by way of “the people’s house”, has the power. Only on foreign policy and restraining congress do American presidents make much difference.

With national security, terrorism and the economy the biggest issues, the Republicans are in the box seat, especially when the weariness of Democratic incumbency is factored. A moderate like Rubio, Kasich or Christie should dispatch Clinton. Trump is an unknown. No one predicted his candidacy would still be alive, much less still leading the polls. While Clinton should be able to dispatch Cruz, if it’s Sanders on the Democrat side, it’s a Republican win.

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