American presidential elections offer a study in complications
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American presidential elections offer a study in complications

The difference between caucuses, different forms of primaries, the use of proportional representation and winner-take-all principle that we will see before November is both fascinating and bewildering, sometimes even confounding candidates and their advisers writes Anirudh Bhattacharyya

columns Updated: Feb 06, 2016 01:11 IST
US presidential elections,Donald Trump,Ted Cruz
From left: US Presidential race candidates Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump. For Indians who are used to a fairly simple electoral process, the first-past-the-post system, the American presidential elections, from primaries onwards, offer a study in complications. (Agencies)

Simplicity has always been a concept Americans have found difficult to grasp. Take for instance American football. Despite being a glorified form of gorilla warfare, statistics and strategies proliferate like text messages on teenagers’ phones. For Indians who are used to a fairly simple electoral process, the first-past-the-post system, the American presidential elections, from primaries onwards, offer a study in complications.

Fittingly enough, the calendar begins in the midwestern state of Iowa with its peculiar strain of elections — the caucuses, which, to be clear, are not a region in eastern Europe. Those concluded on Tuesday when Texas Senator Ted Cruz sneaked past Donald Trump, who barely edged out Florida Senator Marco Rubio in the Republican field. Meanwhile, Jeb Bush spent nearly $3,000 per vote in Iowa, and surely earned his campaign branding of Jeb! After all the hype and hoopla, Cruz snagged exactly one delegate more than Trump.

On the flip side, Hillary Clinton won six Iowa precincts by a coin toss, to finally secure just three delegates more than her rival in the Democratic race, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Curiously enough, the Democratic caucus doesn’t have a secret ballot. Voters openly express their support and evangelise to the other camps.

Not that the caucuses end with Iowa. Nearly 20 other states and territories feature them, and in case you’re interested, American Samoa has one on March 1, the day dubbed Super Tuesday.

New Hampshire is the next stop on the campaign caravan and given that this is an actual primary, with voters queueing up to cast their ballots, one would assume it would be straightforward. Not really. These mixed primaries allow registered Independents to participate. They are squished in between closed primaries (only for registered party members) and those that are open (or a free for all). Just to make it even more intricate, the two parties will hold their respective Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primaries, the third and fourth legs, on different dates. A primer on these primaries could turn out to be more extensive than the budget document Arun Jaitley and his aides are working on right now.

The whole process sometimes confuses not just observers but even high-priced campaign strategists. A Clinton campaign honcho in 2008, according to a Time report, believed these were winner-take-all-delegates contests, as with the Republicans, rather than proportional allotment of delegates. That may have been one reason for Clinton’s calculations going awry then. In 2016, she’ll hope her advisers have shed abacuses for data crunching. Sanders will be counting on her inability to do so.

This is also a reason why underdog campaigns can scamper past those with a pedigree. Grassroots enthusiasm coupled with sufficient dollars and cohorts of data gurus can allow them to cause upsets. That was the Barack Obama routine in 2008. Even as Clinton comfortably cruised in major Democratic states like New York, California and Massachusetts, the Obama brigade was battering her by humongous margins in places like Alaska or Wyoming, where a Democrat has as much chance of winning in the actual presidential election as Sitaram Yechury becoming the next sarsanghchalak. It was a similar operation that let former Senator Rick Santorum give fits to eventual nominee of the Republican Party, Mitt Romney, in 2012.

It would be logical to presume that the saner elements of the process would have been retained. For instance, the Republicans would give all state delegates to that particular primary’s winner earlier. Not this time. In attempting to shorten the schedule, states voting before March 15 will, like the Democrats, dole out delegates proportionally. To make it more Byzantine, how they do so is up to individual states. But expecting them to take the paved path when bylanes beckon isn’t in keeping with reality. That would be like Donald Trump becoming a sponsor of the Council on American-Islamic Relations or CAIR (not that he would care to). Candidates in Indian elections don’t know how good they have it, on so many levels.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Feb 05, 2016 22:09 IST