22 January 2016

The Presidential Primaries – America’s Grand National


On Sunday 13th September 2015, moderate Labour MPs and members woke up in their beds, longing to be told that the result announced the day before was some horrible nightmare. A left-wing 200-1 outsider had surged to victory to become Labour party leader.

Across the pond, thousands of Americans are just weeks away from deciding who’ll be running for their party in 2016. While Ed Miliband’s sweeping changes to Labour’s leadership elections facilitated Jeremy Corbyn’s success in the UK, the presidential primaries are races which have slowly changed and evolved over a long period of time. Old-fashioned grit, resolve and stamina are still as decisive as ever.

From the beginning of February, politicians, campaign staff and volunteers of red and blue will be racing flat-out in every corner of the United States. There is a brutal course of hurdles ahead, with an intense schedule, stiff opposition and an unforgiving media. In July, the Democratic and Republican national conventions will each name a presidential candidate, by which time most candidates will have long been forced to give up the chase.

In a series of contests around the nation, supporters of each nominee vote to win delegates from their state who will pledge to back their candidate at the national convention. The way in which delegates are pledged varies according to state and party, the main difference being between ‘primaries’ and ‘caucuses’. While a primary is a simple anonymous vote, a caucus – thought to be a native American term for a meeting of tribal leaders – includes a debate held in a public place, often followed by members literally voting with their feet to separate sides of the room.

Like in any race, momentum is key, which is why the Iowa caucus (February 1st) and New Hampshire primary (February 9th) are considered so important. Iowa has been a springboard for Democratic nominees for the last two decades, something Hillary Clinton knows all too well as she stumbled out of the blocks in 2008, losing there to Barack Obama. Clinton’s knowledge of the course will stand her in better stead this time out, though. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders’ grassroots operation is a significant threat, and his commanding 27-point lead in New Hampshire is hard to ignore. Martin O’Malley, however, is like to be an early faller, considering he needs at least 15% of the vote in Iowa to win any delegates.

With such an emphasis on members’ attendance, hard work and pure numbers on the ground can make all the difference. In the Republican race, while Donald Trump dominates in the polls, it’s Ted Cruz who is said to have the best ground game, bolstered by support from the conservative religious right. Usually the frontrunner is a GOP ‘establishment’ candidate, but this time round establishment support is divided between Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich – much like the split in Jeremy Corbyn’s moderate opposition last summer. If one of them has a chance of winning the nomination, surviving ‘Super Tuesday’ – the battle on March 1st in which 12 states choose around a quarter of the Republican delegates – will be crucial.

In what looks to be a seminal year in the future of American politics, the presidential primaries are extremely well-poised. While the candidates’ prospects are analysed to the nth degree, who knows what will happen when the race actually gets going. Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in Britain radically changed the nature of the Labour party last year. In 2016, America’s Grand National could change the face of its politics.

Jack Graham is a video journalist and political commentator who specialises in American politics