The American elections are without a doubt one of the greatest shows on earth. It’s full of emotion, intrigue and conflict. And those are perfect ingredients for the big and small screen.
Hollywood has produced several great movies and series you can watch to immerse yourself completely into the election season. So grab some popcorn and a coke and lets get political!
The West Wing
This is the classic Aaron Sorkin series about president Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) a Democrat from New Hampshire and the administration that he runs. This series captured the imagination of countless viewers when it aired between 1999 and 2006.
The series focusses on the senior staff running the country during the terms of the president. The cast is made up of stars like Alan Alda, John Spencer and Bradley Whitford so you are in for a great time.
If you really want to geek out, then you should listen to The West Wing Weekly podcast. This recent podcast looks back at the series episode by episode with some of the cast.
Imagine being on the losing side of a presidential election. It happened to Mitt Romney in 2012. Barack Obama handily defeated the Republican candidate from Utah. However, as much of this might seem water under the bridge, the movie sheds light on the process of an election and the human side of a politician. This documentary followed Romney for 6 years prior to the election. It gives you a unique view into what it means to be a politician and what it means to lose.
HBO has done a couple of great movies about the presidential elections. Recount shows you the inside of both the Republican and Democratic campaigns during the 2000 Florida recount.
If you are too young to remember: due to voting irregularities and an extremely close race in Florida, Al Gore and George W. Bush ended up in a protracted legal fight over who won the electoral votes of Florida. Both men could be president and needed the win. You can read up on it here, but you can also just watch the movie.
This movie isn’t a nail-biter, you know the outcome already. But the all-star cast sure knows how to make it entertaining.
Remember Sarah Palin? She might be the first sign of the coming of the Trump age. Nowadays we don’t hear that much from the former governor of the state of Alaska, but her selection as a vice-presidential candidate by John McCain changed politics up to this day. As with Recount, the all-star cast including Ed Harris portrays the 2008 Republican campaign impressively.
In principle, local parties in states are allowed to decide for themselves when to organize their primaries. The national organization does follow certain guidelines. For example, Iowa remains first and New Hampshire second although those states are not representative of the entire country.
Every election cycle the primary dates vary a little. This is because state parties are expected to set a date for their primary and most want theirs to be relevant to the overall contest. If you are dead last,
In 2020 that means a trip to Nevada and a week later to South Carolina. But only the Democrats go there. The Republicans who then hold an extended break until Tuesday, March 3rd. That date is important because you will know it by another name: Super Tuesday.
Republicans? Primary? That’s right, the Republican party will also hold primaries in 2020 despite Donald Trump being president and standing for election himself. The entire process from 2016 is repeated again for the Republicans. So other candidates can apply for the Republican nomination. That is the theory, but in practice the current president usually wins the primary with little difficulty.
After Nevada and South Carolina, many candidates will drop out of the race. Those who do not achieve good results after four states usually suspend their campaign. They usually run out of money because donors would rather put money on a winner than on someone who doesn’t seem to stand a chance. In addition, the final winner (if he / she becomes president) has quite a few nice jobs to hand out. If you have ambitions, it’s probably beneficial to leave the fight at a relatively early stage. Joe Biden, who became the vice president under Obama, is a good example of this.
Another tradition in the primaries is ‘Super Tuesday’. This is a day when many states collectively hold their primaries. After Super Tuesday it should be clear who the top candidates are. In 2020 Super Tuesday is March 3rd. If you know that the primaries last until well into June, then it seems strange that such an influential moment is planned so early in the primaries.
Realistically, the fight is usually over after the big states have voted. So after states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Florida, New York, California and Texas, a very large proportion of delegates is already divided among the candidates. Almost half of Americans live in these seven states. So the 28th of April is the last moment at which a sizeable number of delegates is up for grabs.
So the end of the primary season might be a lot sooner than you think. But don’t count out Bernie Sanders, he kept the 2016 Democratic primary going until the very end, even though there was only a marginal chance he could win.
Not all primaries are held on the same day. Traditionally, the primaries are first held in the state of Iowa and then in New Hampshire. I say tradition and it might feel as if it was like this forever. But it’s only since 1972 that the parties introduced this calendar.
But why is Iowa first? By now it really has become a tradition. But there is a more practical reason: the complexities in Iowa forced the parties to do so. Iowa itself is a rather unimportant state if you look at the whole of the United States. Nor does the state represent a cross-section of the rest of the country. But the local (democratic) party has such an extensive process to award its delegates it needs to be as early as possible to allow all county, congressional conventions to take place before the final state convention.
Complexities. By now it has to be your favorite word if you are reading up on the American elections. So, here it is: Iowa democrats hold a so-called Caucus. Unlike a Primary, that is not voting with a classic piece of paper or a form. The residents of Iowa all come together at a set time in tennis halls and gymnasiums in the state. Usually it is freezing cold around that time of year, so voting after work requires some effort.
Once in the tennis hall, they form groups who want to vote for a specific candidate. The votes are counted and then the next round takes place. All candidates who pass the minimum vote requirement can take part in the second round.
If you do not pass the threshold, they will exclude you from the next round and your voters can look for another candidate who has. The groups are then counted and then processed in the final result of the state.
The party announces a provisional result on the evening of the caucus. Due to the complexity of the elections in Iowa, it sometimes happens that something changes. Even weeks later.
But what good is Iowa to candidates except for a moderate amount of delegates? Iowa provides a boatload of media attention. Months before the primaries and the days after, journalists have nothing else to talk about but Iowa. For relatively unknown candidates, a good finish in Iowa is of vital importance if they want to compete. For dead favorites, losing in Iowa is a painful defeat that absolutely must be overcome in the next state.
Second on the calendar: New Hampshire
New Hampshire, in the northeastern United States, is not representative of the entire country either. Just like Iowa. But as much as Iowa plays a role in separating the chaff from the wheat, so does New Hampshire. Usually the two states follow each other within two weeks of each other. In the meantime, the media is reporting on the new dynamic that resulted from the Iowa caucus. Be prepared to hear a lot of talk about ‘momentum’ before and after the primary in New Hampshire.
Why momentum? Because both don’t have enough delegates of their own to have a meaningful impact on the final result. But the timing of both states makes them influential.
Unlike in Iowa, New Hampshire is not a caucus state but holds a ‘normal’ primary. A primary is something that many will recognize. You go to the polls, vote for a candidate and at the end of the evening the votes are counted and a winner is announced.
After New Hampshire, quite a few candidates will drop out. That may sound strange because Iowa and New Hampshire represent less than 1.5% of all residents of the United States. But candidates who score poorly in these states often face financial setbacks immediately after because donors don’t want to spend money on a candidate that doesn’t win. If you can’t advertise, pay your staff or rent office space you can’t compete with candidates who do.
But even if you skip these states to avoid losing and the negative press that come with it, you might be in trouble. In 2020 former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg is trying this approach. Rudy Giuliani tried it too in 2008. He put his focus on the larger states of the US and partly because of that, he did not get a foothold anywhere.
If you are getting caught up in the election fever, there are things you can do to make it even exciting: podcasts.
Podcasts are a very nice way to stay informed of the daily developments surrounding the American elections. They are of very high quality and completely free. Just use a free Spotify account or any other podcast app to listen.
Here are some podcasts that you can listen to that are Namary approved:
The NPR Politics Podcast
This is my favorite. The NPR team explains the news every single day in a podcast that lasts about 15 minutes. The team is insightful, funny and upbeat. Combine that with years of experience in politics and you have a combination that just rocks.
If you’ve never heard the name Nate Silver, then you probably don’t know FiveThrityEight.com either. Silver is a statistician who predicts the election results based on his own statistical model. And if you are not into reading, his team also creates a podcast which is about as funny as the NPR politics podcast but with 95% more statistics. They do not mess about though, so don’t listen to this podcast in bed if you want to keep up.
Technically, this isn’t a podcast as much as an audio copy of the TV show that airs every weekday on MSNBC, Now I know some of you will get ‘interesting feelings’ from the mere mention of MSNBC but on any day the host Rachel Maddow, who holds a doctorate from Oxford University, connects past and present political stories to each other to give the viewer insight in the way power and politics work.
The previous podcasts are national podcast. But Iowa Public Radio has a very good podcast about just their 2020 primary called Caucus Land. The podcast describes the history, current struggles and future of the first in the nation caucus.
Want to know more about Iowa and the Iowa caucus? Next week I’ll write a blog about it. And of course you can listen to the podcast:
Ever wondered how the presidential elections in the USA work? For a casual observer, especially abroad, the election might seem complicated. Want to find out how it works? Let me take you on a journey from Iowa to the White House.
In contrast to a lot of parliamentary elections in the world, the American system uses Primaries. During the primaries the parties in the USA elect their candidates for the actual presidential election on the 3th of November. If more than 1 candidate wants to run for president, then the primary process kicks in. And the more candidates, the more interesting (and long-winded) the process.
It might at first be very amicable and be a spirited discussion about views and policy. But there are enough examples of something that more resembles a bar fight.
An example of a nasty bar fight is the 2015 primary in the Republican party. The arrival of Donald Trump on the political scene was, at first, not taken seriously. But The Donald wouldn’t be The Donald if he didn’t make an impact. That impact was felt in a more literal sense by his opponents. Trump wasn’t exactly ‘soft’ on them as Texas senator Ted Cruz found out the hard way.
The process of the primaries is a lot easier for Trump in 2020. There are primaries within the Republican party, but it would be exceptional if any serious opposition would appear against a sitting president from his own party.
It’s different for the Democrats. Because Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 and the Democratic election victory in 2018, the amount of candidates is now huge. At the time of writing (early 2020), 12 candidates applied for the Democratic Party’s candidacy. Which means it’s very difficult for the more unknown candidates to get noticed by the voters.
Suppose you want to become a candidate …
In principle, anyone can be a candidate. You can fill in a form and that’s it. But that doesn’t mean it enrols you in the actual primaries. For that you need to get your application confirmed at a local chapter of the party. To get that confirmation, you need signatures of residents of the state that you are trying to be a candidate in. That is often the only way to get on the actual ballot papers.
Candidates want to get on the ballot in all states, but you don’t have to. Comedian Stephen Colbert tried to run for the Republican and Democratic nomination of only his home state, South Carolina. (He ended up not running at all, but had a good laugh about it by endorsing Herman Cain.)
America still is a federation of states when it comes to their elections. The local party organizes the elections and therefore you can only win the votes of that state. This means that you need to garner support in enough states to get to be the nominee. Rather than votes or any other metric, this is counted in delegates to the national conference of the party. Every state gets a certain number of delegates. If you win a majority of those delegates from all the states, you are the nominee.
So it’s a two-stage rocket: first arrange your candidacy and then register per state to get on the ballot. You have to do that in as many states as possible because you can only win a fixed number of delegates per state. The delegates are awarded based on the primaries in every state. The candidate with a majority of the delegates wins the nomination and gets to try and defeat Donald Trump in november.
The funny thing is that those delegates are real people. They are party members who commit themselves to the result of the election in their state. There are almost 4000 of them, divided between the different states according to their population size.
Great, I am on the ballot papers. Now what?
Now it becomes really complicated. There are different variants of primaries, all with their own dynamics. In addition, you have to take into account when the different primaries take place because not all of them happen on 1 day.
Fortunately, the biggest difference is in the beginning of the process. So let’s start in the first and second state where primaries are being held: Iowa and New Hampshire. All primaries after these two follow roughly the same pattern.