The Australian Capital Territory will have an election for its Legislative Assembly in October this year. But the election most of the world is exercised about is that for the President of the United States, and that will take place in November. The incumbent President is Donald Trump, who looks to be a shoo-in for his party’s nomination when the Republicans meet in August. The Democrats meet in July, and at the moment a series of ‘primary’ elections is taking place, state by state. The primary is an unusual American invention, and while we hear a lot about the outcome in each state, my guess is that most Australians don’t have a clear idea of what is actually going on. So here is my own summary of the process.
The Democratic primaries started in early February and finish in early June. Very generally, you need to be a declared Democratic supporter to take part in the primary, and a declared Republican supporter to take part in the Republican primary in your state. Very generally again, the votes of each state are proportional to their population, so the most populous states carry a lot of weight in the final outcome. The Democrats also have super-delegates, members of the Party and elected officials, who are added to the mix and whose votes can be decisive if there is a close contest. In all there will be not quite 4000 pledged delegates to the convention in June and another few hundred super-delegates.
Now for the candidates, who are nearly always the real focus of public attention. So far there have been 29 announced candidates, of whom 21 have since dropped out, leaving eight serious, major candidates to battle it out with each other (through public debates as well as campaigning). They are, in rough order of notability:
Joe Biden (77) Vice-President of the USA, 2009 – 2017
Michael Bloomberg(78) Mayor of New York City 2002 – 2013, CEO of Bloombergs
Bernie Sanders(78) Senator from Vermont 2007 – present
Pete Buttigieg(38) Mayor South Bend, Indiana 2002 – present
Elizabeth Warren (70) Senator from Massachusetts 2013 – present
Amy Klobuchar(59) Senator from Minnesota 2007 – present
Tulsi Gabbard (38) US representative from Hawai’i 2013 – present
Tom Steyer(62) Hedge Fund Manager
At first glance the top eight include four who are 70 or over, three of them approaching 80, and two ‘young’ ones in their late thirties. The old ones are not so unusual. Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer and Ronald Reagan were much the same age during their own terms as #1, and people elected them.
There are sharp differences among them in terms of net worth. President Trump is not on the breadline, with an estimated net worth of $3.5 billion (all these figures are ‘estimates’, and expressed in USD). But Michael Bloomberg leaves him on the nature strip tying up his shoelaces, with an estimated net worth, wait for it, of $62.8 billion. Tom Steyer, whom most Australians will not have heard of, is worth $1.6 billion. At the other end of the scale is the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is worth only $100,000 and is still paying back his student loan. The other politicians seem to be worth about what their house is worth.
Why is all that important? Well, the USA is a big place, and serious campaigning is frightfully expensive. You’ll need a team, a plane, and lots of money for advertising and television appearances. Where is the money to come from? Donald Trump was able to say that he didn’t owe anyone anything for giving him money in 2016. He paid for his election expenses himself. Those who want to give you large amounts of money will want a return for their support. If Michael Bloomberg gets the nomination he will be in the same potential position as Donald Trump, whose net worth was apparently halved because of his spending on the campaign. Bloomberg has much deeper pockets, and says he will spend what it takes. The poor ones will rely on the Democratic Party and on crowd-funding, which is becoming more important in Western countries, even in Oz.
What are they on about? Characteristically in American politics, a candidate has to be able to talk to the feminists and the cardinals about his/her views on abortion, and leave both sides nodding supportively. Larry Kummer, whom I have mentioned approvingly in the past, has written a neat summary of where the Democratic candidates sit, in terms of policy.
We in Australia are used to thinking in terms of Left and Right, liberal and conservative, and similar binary opposites. That hasn’t very worked well in the USA because while the unions supported the Democrats, so did hard-line Southerners. These days there has been a switch. Donald Trump drew a lot of support from workers who had never voted Republican before but were concerned about their jobs and their future. In consequence, the Democratic Party seems to have shifted to the Left, but a kind of socialist Left, which won’t endear them to the industrial workers whom Trump won over.
So here’s Kummer’s take on the eight major candidates, with data drawn from an impressively large base. You need to know how politicians have voted in the past, for example, and there are databases that can tell you. I like his opening sentence: The presidential election of 2020 is a costume drama, with the candidates all wearing masks. [So…] Sanders runs as everybody’s grandfather. Warren runs as Professor Fixit, with a plan for every problem. Biden and Amy Klobuchar pretend to be moderates. The key to understanding what comes after one of them wins is knowing the political views of their staffs. That is important, so we cannot be told. I will bet they are mostly hardcore social justice warriors, with dreams of remaking American society in ways unmentionable on the campaign trail.
The exception is Pete Buttigieg… running as a blank slate on which people project their dreams. If successful, this might become the preferred way for our elites to fool us in elections.
Buttigieg reminds me of Justin Trudeau a little — young and handsome. Anything else? The press and the commentators tend to describe the candidates as ‘progressive, ‘moderate’ or even ‘left’. The Washington Post says that every one of them ‘is running on an agenda to the left of Mr Obama’s’.
Here’s a bit more from the Washington Post:
Mr. Sanders’s program, which includes the Medicare-for-all plan that Ms. Warren has endorsed, would cost some $60 trillion to $90 trillion over 10 years, an astonishing number that would imply doubling the size of the federal government. …But the fact that Mr. Sanders’s and Ms. Warren’s positioning puts them decidedly to the left of others in the race does not make their competitors ‘centrist.’ All, in fact, have put forward ambitious, progressive platforms for reducing inequality and promoting access to health and education. …
Who owns the WaPo? Why, it’s Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, and the world’s richest man. He leaves Michael Bloomberg on another stretch of the nature strip, with an estimated net worth of $126 billion. He bought a house for $165 million, calculated to be an eighth of a per cent of his net worth. Guess what? He’s committing $10 billion to fight climate change. These numbers don’t frighten me, but they are a little on the bizarre side surely. There is such a temptation for really rich people to want to have an effect, perhaps on the philanthropic side, but also in the purpose and outcome of politics and government.
Back to the relatively impoverished President Trump. Approval and disapproval for him as President (the actual questions vary) across the USA has him at the moment close to even-Steven, but he has been marginally disapproved of throughout his presidency. About nine in ten Republicans would vote for him. In terms of the economy, the Dow Jones is way up, American GDP is much better than ours, unemployment is low, and while there are wobbles and scares about the Cvirus and its economic implications, that applies to all parties and candidates.
There’s eight months of campaigning ahead of them all, and our news media will report the primary outcomes as they occur. I hope this little summary helps. The final outcome? Barring some extraordinary event, I would expect President Trump to win a second term. I doubt there’ll be any kind of landslide either way.