Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Demystifying the US Electoral System: part II

Alrighty. Now that we have the Electoral College well in hand, it is time to turn our attention to another, even more sadistic awesome component of the US electoral process: the presidential primaries. If you’ve been following the news of late, then you must be under the impression that the whole ordeal is complicated, which it is—to the point of absurdity, but hang in there anyway, because it can also be sort of fascinating. So here we go.


(Help! I’m in a 3-part nutshell!)

Part II: the Presidential Primaries 

First of all, the Framers in their infinite wisdom decided to leave the entire primary thing out of the Constitution. Why? Because you try coming up with a presidential nomination process, that’s why. It sounds like a total hassle. Plus they had more pressing matters to worry about, like where to get more saltpeter and pins.

In hindsight, they really should have tried harder—or just tried, full stop—because whatever system they came up with would undoubtedly have been superior to the total mess we’re stuck with today. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

A bit more history

So how DID the primary process evolve? Well, as you surely remember from last time, the Electoral College single-handedly elected the president and vice president in the first four US elections. In the first two elections, the College even chose who could be on the ballot to begin with (George Washington and George Washington, respectively). But with the ratification of the 12th Amendment, and the rise of the first political parties, the notion of a formal nomination process finally had to be dealt with. Ick.

Enter the legislative party caucus* wherein congressional members from each party would gather in back rooms informally, in order to agree on their party’s nominees. Already in operation as early as 1796, the caucus became the official way of doing things beginning in 1804. Henceforth, party caucuses would formally nominate two men to make up the “presidential ticket” as standard bearers of their party. The system held out for around 20 years before collapsing in 1824 during an election best known for Andrew Jackson getting shafted Al Gore-style, losing his run for the White House despite having won the popular vote. Interestingly, 1824 was also the first year that there even was a popular vote worth mentioning.

Understandably ticked off, Jackson made a comeback in 1828 in an election so ugly it makes 2016 look like a game of pat-a-cake, and was rewarded with a sweeping victory. In other words, campaigning like a bunch of total jerks is as old as campaigning at all. With the congressional nominating caucus in tatters, the next election’s candidates were chosen by (drum roll) national conventions after the Anti-Masonic Party came up with the idea in 1831—that is, if 96 men gathering in a Baltimore saloon can be considered a national convention.

Ever since then, most parties have held national nominating conventions, attended by state delegates, to crown their presidential and vice presidential candidates. Today’s conventions are criticized for being nothing more than glorified pep rallies with no suspense left as to which candidates will be selected because the states have already decided. Obviously, this was not always the case; much like the original Electoral College, the original nominating conventions used to be actual decision-making bodies. But those conventions had their own problems, namely corruption. (To which you are surely reacting with utmost shock—corruption? In politics?!)

Indeed—up until the 20th century, nominating conventions were controlled by party bigwigs, who would hand-pick their state’s delegates and then make sure they voted “correctly” using whatever means they deemed appropriate. Surprisingly enough, this eventually became problematic and that, my friends, is when the presidential primary election was finally born—to boost the democracy factor by letting the people in on the action. Now, not all states were hip to that jive—because honestly, if all the states suddenly started agreeing on stuff then where would the fun lie? Still, by 1916 more than half of them were holding primaries, which isn’t great, but it’s passing (actually less than 60% is technically an “F” and therefore isn’t passing at all, but let’s say we’re grading on a curve). By 1936, however, under pressure from party leaders and potential candidates who weren’t fans at all of this popular vote business, all but 12 or so states had abandoned the presidential primary. And 12/48 is definitely an F.

Following WWII, democracy made a comeback with help from television, which brought candidates and their antics right into people’s homes (and they haven’t left since). Primaries once more grew in popularity, major reforms beginning in 1968 cleaned up the process, and soon every state was at last holding some form of presidential primary. Which brings us to today. Are you still awake?

Elect your champion

OK, so here we are in 2016 and every state is on board the USS Primary. Do they all go about it the same way? Oh hells no—again, states still like to pretend that they’re all sovereign and stuff, so like they’d be caught dead doing some weird collective thing. Instead, each party in each state chooses its own nomination format from the following electoral buffet:
  • Closed primaries: only voters who are affiliated with a given party can vote on that party’s ballot
  • Semi-closed primaries: political parties may choose to allow unaffiliated voters to vote on their ballot, while affiliated voters can only vote on their own party’s ballot
  • Semi-open primaries: voters of any affiliation can vote on any party’s ballot, but they must first make some public declaration of support for a single political party 
  • Open primaries: voters of any affiliation can vote on any party’s ballot
  • Caucuses (this one’s for you, Donald): voters have to get off their butts and head to a local party gathering, where they openly decide which candidate to support in addition to dealing with other party business. Voting is done by raising hands or breaking up into groups.

Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa!

As you are most certainly aware, not all states vote on the same day. Instead, the primaries are staggered, beginning early in the year and concluding in June, followed by the national party conventions. The famous Iowa caucuses always fire the opening shot of the primary season. Why? Do you really want to know? I bet you don’t. *Yawn* (But just in case, here’s a braver attempt than anything I could muster.)

What’s so super about Super Tuesday?

Super Tuesday falls on a particular day of the week (guess which), early in the primary season, when multiple states vote at once. It’s “super” because more delegates to the nominating conventions can be won on this one day than on any other day of the primary calendar. It also represents an important test of each candidate’s electability, thus separating the proverbial wheat from the proverbial chaff.

Delegate math

We haven’t discussed delegate allocation yet, mainly because it’s an awful subject. To give you the short version, each party determines how many delegates it allocates to each state. On the Democrats’ side, the rules for doing this are so effing complicated that they have to use a mathematical formula—and a gnarly one at that. If you really want to go there, check out The Green Papers (and good luck understanding any of it). For their part, the Republicans aren’t much better. Incidentally, the Democrats have a way bigger convention than the Republicans do, with around twice as many delegates. This is because Democrats party harder the two parties handle delegate allocation differently, as discussed above. But to either party, there is only one number that truly matters: in 2016, that number is 2,383 for the donkeys and 1,237 for the elephants. Why? Because it represents the amount of delegates required to secure the nomination and proceed to the Big Top.

Superdelegates: like normal delegates, only with superpowers

Well, not really—but they do get a pretty awesome name. So, in addition to the “pledged” delegates that each candidate racks up during the primary process (who are supposed to remain faithful to that particular candidate), both parties also have these other delegates who are free agents and can vote any way they choose! On the Republican side, these folks are the three top party officials from each state. In 2016, there are 109 of them, and they are called … automatic delegates. Big whoop. On the Democratic side, on the other hand, they are called Superdelegates, and are composed of senior party officers and elected officials. There are 714 Supers in 2016, or 15% of all Democratic delegates. The whole idea came about in 1984 as a way for party leaders to have more of a say in the election process (because it’s all well and good to talk about the will of the people, but sometimes the people go a little nuts. Witness the rise of The Donald). Are Superdelegates democratic? Yes … when they favor your candidate. Actually, despite all the recent hoopla in the news, the Supers have never once contradicted the pledged delegate majority, so those Sanders folks need to just calm the hell down. As Samantha Bee pointed out this week, we should think of Superdelegates as a driving instructor with his foot hovering over the brake in case we do anything too stupid. Having recently passed my driving exam, I can truly appreciate the analogy.

Is this over yet?

Yes! Next time we’ll cover the Ultimate Showdown: the Presidential Election. In the meantime, how about fixing yourself a nice stiff drink? I know I could sure use one.

*Probably derived from an Algonquin term, meaning “to talk informally with one’s fellows.” Little surprise that Donald Trump, who is no fan of Native Americans, has no clue what this means.