No election grabs the world’s attention quite like an American election does. This is largely because whatever else might be the case, the US is still the world’s superpower. But there is also something inherently dramatic about the US political process, with its attack ads, colourful politicians and lengthy campaigns.
Today marks the beginning of the US contest, with the Iowa Caucuses marking the first step of the US presidential primary.
The Presidential primary is one of the most unusual aspects of the US political process. Rather than have the President chosen directly by party elites or by a small cadre of party members, the candidates for President are instead chosen by voters. The rules on which voters have a say differ from state to state. In most, voters have the opportunity to register as a supporter of a party when they register to vote. Voters then have the opportunity to vote for their chosen party’s candidate in state-wide primaries.
The first two votes, Iowa and New Hampshire, are both slight exceptions to this rule. New Hampshire uses an open primary system, where registered independents have the option to vote for a candidate from whichever party they wish to on the day (though they can only vote for a candidate from one party).
Iowa’s system is different. The Caucuses are a series of meetings, taking place in 1,682 precincts across Iowa. They last two hours and feature debate and an informal style. For the Democrats voting is open and supporters of candidates who gain the support of less than 15% of the vote are given the option to switch sides.
This year the Republicans have introduced a binding secret ballot, closer to the primary model, though voters must still attend traditional caucus meetings. The element of deliberation in a caucus meeting allows for a more thoughtful consensual process, though the fact that voters are not representative (as, say, in a constitutional convention) does somewhat undermine their status as a decision-making forum.
The lengthy deliberation also results in a much lower turnout. In New Hampshire, a state of 1.3 million people, a quarter of a million voted in the Republican primary in 2012. Iowa is a state of 3.1 million but only 121,501 voters caucused that same year.
The position of the two states in the process is controversial. Due to their position as the ‘first in the nation’, Iowa and New Hampshire’s processes get disproportionate attention from the US media. Winners, or candidates who are seen to have done well, often gain momentum from positive news coverage and reception amongst key party elites and donors.
Iowa and New Hampshire are not representative in several ways, both being disproportionately white and rural. They are also both small states, each representing less than 1% of the population of the United States – so a relatively small area has disproportionate strength.
Yet this size is also a democratic advantage in a way. Iowa’s small size meant that, in 2012, Rick Santorum, an incredibly poorly-funded candidate, still managed to shock everybody by winning the caucuses through extensive travel around Iowa, visiting all 99 counties of the state. Face to face campaigning is very important in these small states. An old joke about campaigning in early states is that a voter is asked what they think of a candidate. “I don’t know, I’ve only met them twice” is the response. While American politics is often thought of as big, brash and exceptionally expensive, the beginnings of a campaign to the most powerful office in the world often starts off in the most humble of surroundings, at state fairs, small meetings in Iowan town halls and pounding the pavements of Des Moines.
The two states are both also swing states in US presidential elections, albeit very different types. Iowa is split between very liberal areas, especially its capital and largest city, Des Moines, and rural, heavily evangelical rural areas. New Hampshire’s voters tend towards moderation, however. Combined with the effects on turnout of the caucus/open primary systems of Iowa and New Hampshire, this means that the former tends to produce more radical candidates and the latter more moderate ones. Since moderates tend to win out in the long run, New Hampshire residents often dismissively say that “Iowans pick corn, New Hampshire picks Presidents”.
The primary process thus has significant advantages and disadvantages. For an overview of the various options on how the primary system could be changed and reformed I recommend this NPR piece. The ERS’s American equivalent, FairVote, backs one system in particular, the Delaware Plan, in which states would vote for the Presidential nominees in blocks, with the smallest states going first.
Of course, no system is perfect. And perhaps primaries are flawed in and of themselves, although it’s difficult to imagine what could replace them – beyond going back to the old system in which party elites chose candidates in smoke-filled rooms.
Nevertheless, primaries are an unpredictable, dramatic element of American democracy. Whether positive or negative, they have, once again made for an exciting race this year. As a process, it looks like they‘re here to stay for the foreseeable future.