The US presidential primaries are turning into a bizarre show

  • Anirudh Bhattacharyya, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 17, 2016 22:53 IST
US Democratic presidential candidate and US Senator Bernie Sanders (middle) hugs former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner at a campaign at the Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York, April 9, 2016 (REUTERS)

A pre-primary favourite for a party’s nomination to contest the November elections isn’t convinced the principal rival is faithful to the cause: “I’m not even sure he is one. He’s running as one. So I don’t know quite how to characterise him,” went the charge. The opposing camp, meanwhile, warns the frontrunner not to “destroy” the party to “satisfy” personal ambition. There’s much chatter concerning convention chaos.

If you’re starting to scowl over the prospect of yet another analysis on the Trump train derailing the Republicans, you are thinking off-track. In recent days, Hillary Clinton has been feeling the Bern and questioned Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ claim to fly the Democratic Party banner. His campaign adviser ticked her off for mouthing off. One recent poll shows nearly a quarter of Sanders’ supporters won’t back Clinton in the general. If Democrats thought they could sit by and munch popcorn (or quinoa) while the Republicans ate their own, now they’re getting indigestion over their own party making a meal of getting a nominee.

Read | Rivals Clinton, Sanders tied in support among Democrats: Poll

This is the latest chapter in the most bizarre presidential election cycle in America in decades, one where even New York, which rarely sees hard fought contests, has begun to matter.

That, of course, refers to the primary in the Empire State on April 19. Bernie Sanders met Brooklyn hipsters, Ted Cruz met with Bronx cheers, the Trump rail rolled into Long Island and Hillary Clinton fumbled her swipe into the NYC subway. It isn’t as if politicians don’t make a beeline for New York, but it’s usually for its eponymous city, to midtown and lower Manhattan, fund-raising central, where blue bilious billionaires adhere like barnacles. Those are the people presidential contenders abuse in public and amuse in private.

Read | Trump blasts ‘rigged’ rules on picking Republican delegates

In a way, New York’s recent relevance is fitting since three of the main remaining participants are, in various ways, natives. Sanders is the liberal New York Jew, the fauna that flourishes on the Upper West Side. Despite his decades in Vermont, he hasn’t quite lost that New York accent. Clinton is the Midwestern carpetbagger (by way of Little Rock, Arkansas), who pretends to be at home in Harlem even if she can’t quite swipe a Metrocard, the ubiquitous pass for the subway system. Trump, of course, remains a denizen, displaying the sort of brazenness that makes it the city of hucksters on the make. The outsiders Cruz and Kasich have as much chance of cracking the code as they have of finding parking downtown on a weekday. That’s, at least, the city; there’s also the rest of the state, succinctly dismissed as Upstate, that expanse between NYC and Niagara Falls.

Not that New York oughtn’t to matter. But in this game of democracy gone wild, states that are a gimme for a party or a candidate often draw as much electoral interest as sunbathing during a Delhi summer. While there are arguments that the process allows insurgent candidates to dethrone the anointed (see Clinton, Hillary, 2008 and Bush, Jeb 2016), it has progressed this time into a mandate for madness. Primary voters may have cast their ballots in their millions, but the nomination may actually depend on establishment rules. If a Donald Trump emerges with the most delegates but not enough to hit the magic number, a contested convention could chew him up. And if a Sanders wins eight out of nine contests, but still drowns in a deluge of superdelegates (party grandees at various levels), his supporters could take their case of sour grapes to the convention floor to whine about the injustice league.

Read | How’d US be under ‘President Trump’: Boston Globe mocks on frontpage

After two-and-a-half months of grassroots voters turning up, you may well have a high command dictating the outcome.

Meanwhile, the primaries could continue to matter all the way to June 7, a day when the calendar includes California. If it gets that far, both parties should seriously consider cancelling the primary process and instead taking to holding an awards night in Los Angeles and have a jury give a statuette to the best performer in the role of presidential candidate.

(Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs . The views expressed are personal)

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