Primary Politics for Canadians

Primary Politics for Canadians

Given that television and radio signals have a much easier time crossing the border than people do, American news coverage is pretty much inescapable for us Canadians. For some of us, this is a welcome invasion; others likely find it insufferable. For better or for worse, there’s no avoiding that there’s an American presidential election this year, and that we’re going to be hearing an awful lot about it.

Given that most Canadians aren’t exactly members of the President Bush fan-club, I expect that there is at least passing interest in the contest to replace him as Commander in Chief. The problem is that to the casual politics follower, the whole processes of choosing the Democratic and Republican nominees for president is ridiculously convoluted. So, to help you along, here’s my “just the basics” overview of how the next few months in American politics are going to unfold.

(Be forewarned…even “just the basics” may take a while, so get comfortable…)


Let’s start with an easy one – what the heck is this whole primary process, anyways?

The primary system is a series of votes where Democrats and Republicans choose their respective nominees for president in the upcoming presidential election. These votes at the state and local level are how we get from the wide, bloated field of contenders that you’ve seen on the evening news down to a solitary candidate from each party.

Now, while party members come out to support their preferred nominee, what they’re really voting for are the delegates that will travel to the party’s national convention this summer and vote for the nominee. In this way, despite its many differences, the best reference point for us Canucks is probably the way that the Liberal Party of Canada selects a leader. The local party organization selects delegates tied to particular candidates based on their local support; these delegates then travel and vote at the national convention and voila – a leader is chosen (or, in the case of the Americans, a presidential nominee).

The first primary for both parties are the Iowa caucuses, which take place today. The final primary for the Democrats is South Dakota on June 3; the Republicans close with South Dakota and New Mexico on the same date. The Democratic National Convention will then be held from August 25-28; the Republican Convention from September 1-4.

Why are the primaries so crazy?

Umm…there’s lots of things that seem crazy about them to us Canucks. Anything in particular?

Okay, well, you’ve used the Liberal Party as our closest comparison here in Canada. What are the major differences?

The first is that the votes are staggered. The practical reason for this is simple: the United States is a big country, with a lot of people in it, so a staggered system allows candidates to spend more time campaigning locally at the state level. The second difference – and this is a biggie – is that the results of the local votes in each state are made public.

This means that the primary season becomes something like a war of attrition: candidates who don’t gain momentum and can’t sustain their campaigns drop out of the race. It also means that most of the time, we know the parties’ nominees for president long before the day of the convention. When the result isn’t certain, and no one candidate has a majority of delegates from the primary votes, a “brokered convention” occurs (not unlike the vote that made Stephane Dion leader of the Liberal Party). While these are common in Canada, they don’t happen in U.S. presidential politics very often: the last brokered convention was the Republican National Convention of 1976, where incumbent president Gerald Ford barely edged out Ronald Reagan.

zee ballot boxWhy are there so many different rules for the primaries across the country?

The old adage goes that while Canada was founded as a centralized nation that has become increasingly decentralized, the opposite holds true for our neighbours to the south; and frankly, there are few better examples of this than the primary system.

While efforts have been made over the past 40 years or so to standardize them somewhat, the primaries are still run by state and local governments. The national parties do play a larger role in the process than they once did, but ultimately the state branches of the Democratic and Republican parties get to decide how their individual votes are tallied and how delegates are assigned to candidates. This explains most of the odd quirks to the system.

As an example, some states award delegates only to the person who achieves the most votes, a so-called “winner take all” system. Others distribute them more proportionately – in fact, the Democrats mandate that states select delegates through a proportional system, with a cut-off of 15 per cent (under 15% = no delegates).

It feels like we’ve been hearing about this election forever. How come it takes so long to choose a damn leader?

Well, it’s always a long process: candidates often start campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire up to two years before the actual vote. But this year the race seems like it’s started much, much earlier because for the first time since 1928, there is neither an incumbent president nor an incumbent vice-president running for their party’s nomination. At the same time, there are some very high-profile candidates in the running, from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama through to Rudy Giuliani This lack of inevitability combined with some superstar candidates has amplified media attention and started the national contest much, much earlier.

Edit: You want proof of this fact? Television analyst Andrew Tyndall has calculated that the nightly newscasts of the major networks devoted more airtime to the forthcoming presidential election campaign last year than they did in 2003, 1999, 1995, and 1991 (the other pre-election years) combined.

So what’s the big deal about Iowa and New Hampshire anyways?

Well, the simple answer is that they’re first. They’re the first test for the men and women seeking their party’s nomination, and thus the first perspective that voters have on their chances for victory. A poor showing can (and will) lead candidates to throw in the towel and abandon their hopes of moving into the White House. Likewise, a strong showing in these states can propel a candidate to national attention and start building enough momentum to make it through the campaign to the convention.

Take John Kerry for example – despite a middling showing in national polls, he was able to take his surprise victory in Iowa and begin a snowball effect that led to victory in New Hampshire and eventually the nomination. Likewise, John McCain’s victory in New Hampshire in 2000 threw a wrench into George W. Bush’s plans to easily claim the nomination and led to a genuine fight for several months.

But why do they get to be first, ahead of everyone else?

Tradition, mostly. That said, it’s a point of regular contention: this year, many other states tried to leapfrog Iowa and New Hampshire by moving their primaries earlier, hoping to increase their prestige. In response, both Iowa and New Hampshire moved their primaries to maintain their “first” status, which is why we’re having this conversation so closely following the holiday season.

Iowa moved to its “front of the line” position in 1972 and was credited by the political punditry with helping both George McGovern and Jimmy Carter gain the attention needed to eventually lead them to the party’s nomination. The Republicans followed suit in 1976, placing their vote on the same day as the Democrats.

New Hampshire, on the other hand, has been considered a proving ground for candidates for much longer. Its importance was solidified in 1952, when Eisenhower defeated Taft for the Republicans and Democratic incumbent Truman was defeated and abandoned his campaign. It’s actually written into state law now that the primary must be the first in the nation.

Wait a minute…how can New Hampshire be “first in the nation” if Iowa takes place before it?

A technicality, but an important one. While people like me throw around the term “primaries” as if all states are the same, they’re not – they generally fall into two different electoral systems. New Hampshire is a traditional primary vote where participants have to do nothing more than show up, put an “x” on their ballot, and push it into the ballot box. Party officials then assign delegates for particular candidates based on the results.

Iowa, on the other hand, is a caucus vote. Caucuses play out slightly differently in every state, but essentially involve voters being obligated to debate, discuss or deliberate over their vote with their peers. It’s generally a more involved, time-consuming process, which is why participation rates tend to be lower.

As you can expect, the two systems often lead to very different outcomes. Caucus votes tend to favour strong local organizations, while primary votes are more susceptible to influence from traditional advertising. Caucus votes also generally have lower turnouts, and are particularly unkind kind to lower-tier candidates as they usually don’t have enough support to survive to the second round of voting.

Who’s running for president this year?

Both parties have several contenders with a genuine shot to capture the nomination, along with long-shot candidates who are trying to influence the public debate or garner personal attention (or both).


The Democrats

The Contenders
Hillary Clinton – Senator, New York
John Edwards – Senator, North Carolina
Barack Obama – Senator, Illinois

The Long-Shots
Joe Biden – Senator, Delaware
Christopher Dodd – Senator, Connecticut
Mike Gravel, former Senator, Alaska
Dennis Kucnich – Congressman, Ohio
Bill Richardson – Governor, New Mexico


The Republicans

The Contenders
Rudy Giuliani – former Mayor, New York City
Mike Huckabee, former Governor, Arkansas
John McCain – Senator, Arizona
Mitt Romney, former Governor, Massachusetts
Fred Thompson, former Senator, Tennessee (I’m keeping him here on name recognition alone, but he’s seriously this close to being moved into the “long shots” category)

The Long-Shots
Duncan Hunter, Congressman, California
Ron Paul, Congressman, Texas

(both Sam Brownback (Senator, Kansas) and Tom Tancredo (Congressman, Colorado) withdrew from the race late in 2007).

Who’s going to win? What am I, a crystal ball reader?

IowaOkay fine, cop-out if you must. Back to business: what’s happening today in Iowa?

Registered Republicans and Democrats in Iowa’s 1,781 precincts are gathering in fire halls, church basements, schools and other traditional voting locations to caucus. To confuse things even more, the voting process is quite different depending on which party you’re a member of.

Okay, let’s start with the Democrats.

An Iowa Democratic caucus sort of plays out like a miniature convention in a bingo hall. Attendees first separate into “preference groups” based on which candidate they’re supporting; there’s also a group for undecideds. For the next half hour, each group sends representatives around the room to convince others to switch sides and join their candidate.

When 30 minutes is up, the party officials take an official tally of each group’s numbers and determine whether a group is “viable” – if their candidate has enough support to remain a voting option (this number varies, but is generally between 15 and 25 per cent of the vote). Those voters whose candidates are not viable are now up for grabs, and a second period of “caucusing” begins as they join one of the remaining candidates’ groups.

When the realignment period ends, a head count is taken of each group, which is reported to state party officials and the media. Delegates are then chosen based on the support for each candidate, some at the district level, some at the state level…it’s complicated, and not something you need to know too much about as a concerned Canuck.

(Note: it is also possible for party members to band together to form an “uncommitted” group that, if it has enough support, can still choose delegates for the convention. In fact, in 1976, “uncommitted” emerged as the top choice in Iowa, with Jimmy Carter in second).

That’s unbelievably complicated. Is the Republican system just as onerous?

No, it’s a bit simpler. While Democrats must partake in an extensive caucus system to vote, Republicans only have to sit through speeches from the district campaign representative from each candidate before they write down the name of their preferred candidate and vote. This “straw poll” is what’s reported to media – the delegate-selection process is, like with the Democrats, a bit complicated and (again) beyond your knowledge needs.

So that’s the basics on the process…what about the outcome? Who’s going to win?

For the Democrats, it’s about as close to a crapshoot as you can possibly get. While Hillary Clinton spent much of 2007 as the clear front-runner in national polls (and the media’s eye), Iowa spent the entire year as a genuine three-way race. Practically deadlocked within the margin of error in almost every poll, any one of the three leading candidates – Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards – could conceivably emerge as the top candidate in Iowa. Last week’s polls showed Edwards with momentum, but the final pre-vote poll from the Des Moines Register – the same poll that predicted both John Kerry’s surprise win and John Edwards’ strong second-place finish in 2004 – gave Obama a seven-point lead over his contenders (the breakdown: Obama 32, Clinton 25, Edwards 24). The wild-card is going to be who the supporters of long-shot candidates gravitate towards when their first choice is deemed not-viable. These second choices will likely decide a close contest.

The Republican side has become a two-way race between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. They’re the only two candidates who are consistently polling above 20 per cent at this point. Romney has always been the frontrunner in Iowa, but it seems that the evangelical vote has gravitated to Huckabee – a phenomenon I wrote about last month – which has tightened the race and, in many polls, put Huckabee ahead.

New HampshirePhewf…okay, so is New Hampshire just as complicated?

Thankfully, no. On Tuesday, both parties have a good, old-fashioned, straight-up ballot box vote in New Hampshire. That said, there’s one interesting loophole. While Iowa, like most primaries, requires one to be a registered member of a party to vote for its leader, this isn’t so in New Hampshire – independents can choose to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary (but not both).

So…what are the results going to be like in New Hampshire? The same as Iowa?

Possibly; possibly not. Iowa and New Hampshire’s votes have never been so close together – only five days apart this year – so it’s a bit up in the air as to how the results in Iowa will affect things. On the Democratic side, polls show Clinton stronger in New Hampshire but with Obama nipping at her heels; Edwards, like in 2004, doesn’t fare as well in the state. As for the Republicans, New Hampshire leans far more libertarian conservative than Christian conservative, which is why Huckabee hasn’t seen nearly the surge in support, and why John McCain and even Ron Paul expect much better results. The buzz is that either Romney or McCain will emerge as the victor.

But frankly? Anything can happen.

Sooo…where do we go from there? What will these first two states tell us?

They may tell us an awful lot about how this race is going to go…or they may tell us next to nothing. A contender who wins both states solidifies themselves as a frontrunner; if there’s a split, then we could have a close contest ahead.

Democratic voters, even if they have their personal favourites, are generally positive about their field of candidates. Therefore, a two-state sweep by any of the candidates – especially Clinton, who is stronger in national polls – could easily lead to the same snowball effect that Kerry started in 2004. I’d argue the Republican field is more likely to produce a longer, more drawn-out process, simply because there’s less enthusiasm for the field amongst voters.

The rest of January sees key votes in South Carolina (January 19) and Florida (January 29), along with a number of other states in the same time period. But then comes the motherload: “Super Tuesday.” It’s become tradition for a large number of states to hold primaries on the first Tuesday in February, but this year – as states jockey to increase their standing on the national stage – things are going to get ridiculous. No less then 21 states will be holding votes and choosing delegates on February 5, meaning that almost half the country will have had their say in a single day.

Basically, on Super Tuesday we’ll likely know where things sit. The also-rans will be separated from the true contenders, and among the contenders the order of things will hopefully be crystal clear. Hell, we may even conceivably know who the party nominees are going to be. But if not, so be it: it would only be fitting if what seems like the longest primary contest in years would also lead to a similarly-elongated presidential election.

Okay, that’s enough, McNutt. This is all well and good but you really haven’t given us any REAL analysis or opinions about what’s going to happen. Come on, live a little!

Okay fine, here goes: I think Iowa is about as close to a must-win for Hillary Clinton as it could possibly get.

If Hillary loses Iowa and subsequently loses the nomination, her decision to campaign in the state will be seen as her fatal mistake. Last May, Clinton’s deputy campaign manager, Mike Henry, wrote a lengthy internal memo arguing that she should abandon Iowa and focus her money and time elsewhere. The memo leaked and the campaign repudiated it, but as much as I support the “ask everyone for your vote” philosophy, I think Clinton made a mistake in not following its advice.

Had she dropped out of Iowa back in the summer, when her national poll numbers were sky high and she had the media wrapped around your finger, it would have rendered Iowa impotent as a bellwether state. Now, though, the Clinton campaign enters a vote in a state where Clinton’s support has never been strong that will be treated by the national media as a vital proving ground for her candidacy. A loss – especially a third-place finish – punctures her narrative as the inevitable nominee and gives her rivals huge momentum going into the rest of the primaries.

My gut tells me that if Obama beats Hillary, the attention will allow him to also beat Clinton in New Hampshire. If Edwards beats Hillary, then New Hampshire goes from a close two-person race to a genuine three-candidate contest and all bets are off. I can see a strong Clinton campaign still emerging from either scenario…but the path to victory becomes unbelievably difficult.

…and the Republicans?

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about Rudy Giuliani very much. That’s because the primary schedule bodes poorly for his candidacy: he’s polling middling-to-poor numbers in almost every state that votes in January. His only hope – hell, prayer – is that the Republican field deadlocks itself in the next month and that his support elsewhere in the country remains strong enough to clean house on Super Tuesday.

A few months ago, with Mitt Romney holding considerable leads in both New Hampshire in Iowa – and a huge pocketbook to keep him going in the coming months – this strategy seemed next to hopeless. Today, things are quite different. Mike Huckabee has surged in Iowa and John McCain is in hot contention in New Hampshire – two candidates who will run into financial difficulties when the campaign goes national in a few weeks.

What’s going on here? The Republican Party coalition that has been held together since the 1970s is shattering. Lacking a single candidate to bridge the growing divides, the factions – evangelical Christians, fiscal conservatives, foreign policy neocons – are scattering, leading to a field with no less than FIVE middling contenders and all sorts of oddities (like, say, constitutionalist Ron Paul – who’s polling single-digits everywhere – out-fundraising everyone in his party and rivaling the leading Dems).

Frankly, as a political history buff, this is a fascinating, fascinating time. I’m not even going to venture a guess as to who is going to win this thing – if there was ever a field and a political climate that could lead to the return of the brokered convention, this is it.

Sounds like goooooood watching!


10 responses to “Primary Politics for Canadians

  1. My mind has been effectively blown. This is ludicrously thorough, and I look forward to seeing the madness unfold and being able to actually sort of kind of know what is happening. Sort of.

    Well played, elder.

  2. Great explanation – I imagine this post will be getting search engine traffic for a while.

    In terms of “Why does the system benefit small states”, I’ve heard the argument that it’s a money-saver; as in, it’s cheaper to compete with each other in Iowa than California, so both parties can save their advertising budget for the general election.

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  5. Thank god for this post. All the talk about primaries and delegates for the Democratic candidacy was flying way over my head until now.

    I still don’t fully grasp why Florida and Michigan have been penalized for moving up their primaries. It seems a bit dicey to disregard that many votes because they picked an early date. But hey, what do I know? I’m just a Canuck trying to wrap her head around this stuff.

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  8. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Primaries? Delegates? What?·

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