US Election 2016: The £3 billion, Two-Year Long Polling Process That Could Put Donald Trump In the White House | Independent Newspapers Limited
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US Election 2016: The £3 billion, Two-Year Long Polling Process That Could Put Donald Trump In the White House

Posted: Feb 13, 2016 at 9:13 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)


Is the American way of electing presidents crazy? Let’s answer that question with another question. Would anyone in their right mind settle on a process that costs $5bn (£3.5bn), lasts for two years, in which you don’t even vote directly for your preferred candidate, in which turnout hasn’t topped 60 per cent in half a century – and which might end up sending Donald Trump to the White House?

The answer plainly is no. But that’s the process America’s got. Every attempt to modify it – not that there have been very many of consequence – has failed. So here we are again, in the midst of the gaudiest, most inefficient rite of democracy on earth, fought under rules laid down almost 230 years ago but in which, in practice, anything goes.

The campaign begins virtually the moment the last vote has been cast in the previous Congressional mid-term elections – and even before that an aspiring candidate may be quietly putting the bones of a campaign together, lining up donors and so on.

It is argued that in a presidential system a protracted process is required. After all, a candidate may be a virtual unknown (see Jimmy Carter in 1975), unlike in a parliamentary system like Britain’s where a potential prime minister usually has served in the Commons, and maybe government, for a decade or more. In the US a long campaign, it is said, proves the mettle of the man, flushing out his strengths, his weaknesses, the skeletons in his cupboard. But two years?

Further disorder is built into the system by the confederal nature of the US. An American presidential election is not one election but an amalgam of 50 elections, conducted by individual states that jealously cling to their right to organise them as they see fit, right down to their own voting hours, and  ballot papers. Remember those hanging chads and butterfly ballots in Florida 2000? But more of that later.

  The media

Then there’s the media. As this 2016 cycle has proved, the election is part of the entertainment business. The more outrageous the candidate (see Mr Trump), the more the coverage. TV ratings for debates have never been higher – not because of a newly discovered yearning to learn about issues, but in the hope of a dust-up between candidates.

It’s not about foreign policy, or the ins and outs of education reform, but personality: who would you rather have a beer with? It’s a horse race, not a policy seminar, driven by half a dozen polls a day. For the networks, all this means money. So why not drag it out as long as possible?

The money

Ah yes, money. 2016 will beat all spending records: $5bn – maybe more, now that a Supreme Court ruling has removed virtually every constraint, in the name of free speech. True, there’s a body named the Federal Election Commission that’s supposed to control the money side of things. But the FEC is a toothless tiger, permanently deadlocked – like Washington in general – between its three Democratic and three Republican members. “Dysfunctional? It’s worse than dysfunctional,” says its former chairwoman, Ann Ravel.