Primaries and caucuses have an iconic status in the United States. They are a step down from the national presidential election, but no less important. They bear witness to a curious weeding out of candidates early in the election race. What might be seen as an aberrant feature of American democracy is considered by its participants its best. Like bread and circuses, it keeps the constituents satisfied about their relevance. (Witness the anger of Michigan voters who felt shortchanged over the poorly organised ballot by the Democrats in that state.)
To participate in these micro-managed elections, you must register, either as Republican, Democrat or Independent. The turnout, notably from Democrat registered voters, has been staggering.
Candidates for the presidency take these preliminary ballots very seriously. But in contrast to the national race, the primary is a scrap among the parties. A crude social Darwinism takes place. Candidates are determined by their platforms and the depth of their pockets. Parties run the risk of committing political suicide before their national nominating conventions. Good candidates risk being sacrificed in a bruising inter-party melee.
At this stage in 2004, an enterprising Howard Dean of Vermont, a rising light who had mastered the art of raising money via the Internet, collapsed at the primary stage. A dull, less impulsive John Kerry of Massachusetts took the Democratic Party to defeat. 2008 is vastly different, though the risks are ever present for parties going for “safe” candidates. For Republicans, the risk is less: virtually none of them are “safe”.
Discussion by pundits about these primaries and caucuses (Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada so far) has resembled a description of a high voltage cell or novel brand of fizzy drink: there is “energy”; there is “freshness” in this election race. The field is wide open, among them a shape-changing Mormon candidate in Mitt Romney; an evangelical in Mike Huckabee; a wife-hopping New Yorker in Rudi Giuliani; an African-American candidate in Barack Obama and a female candidate in Senator Hillary Clinton.
The Iowa caucuses provided stunning victories for Obama and Huckabee. Pollsters were thrown into a tailspin: the Black American and the Baptist had won against the odds. The results in New Hampshire have also made interesting reading, further baffling pundits. Clinton recovered from a devastating third place to win three-point victory over Obama, querying him on where his “beef” was. Hillary also learnt a trick from her husband: shed a tear or two when possible. Whatever you do, seem sincere.
A victorious Republican Senator John McCain, seemingly lost and cash-strapped, came back from the dead in New Hampshire (January 8), “telling the truth”. “In recent years, we have lost the trust of the people who share our principles but doubt our allegiance to them.” Romney came in second, grabbing the voters concerned with immigration and terrorism, while the victor of Iowa, Huckabee, showed a more limited appeal to non-evangelicals, coming in third. Then, just to even things out, Romney won Michigan. Each of these candidates has now coined some variant of the “come back” theme. Bill Clinton, the perennial “come-back kid”, must be shaking his head.
The Republicans look the most intriguing. It is the most fluid cohort of candidates in years. The victors in both Iowa and New Hampshire were not rolling in dollar notes. Huckabee and McCain (more so Huckabee) are “anti-establishment” figures.
Primal chest thumping is mandatory for Republicans, much like Old Testament circumcision. McCain, as he claimed in his victory speech at New Hampshire, wanted to unite America in “defeating an enemy who despises us, our values, and modernity itself”. Rudi Giuliani, a mere footnote in the electoral sparkle, runs (when he bothers to) on his record as Mayor of New York, a self-touted expert on America’s enemies.
Congressman Ron Paul, another murmur amidst the din, is the only candidate who disagrees, seeing war as a frightful waste and America as a wasteful colossus. All will be solved when the soldiers come home, freeing up capital for a dire health care system. When Americans are saving on health costs by having heart operations in India, something must be wrong.
No, say Giuliani, Romney, and politician-come-actor Senator Fred Thompson, who all believe the free-market to be a self-correcting deity that will right inequalities in the long run.
As for immigration, there is a general jitteriness. The illegal immigrant is represented as bad seepage that requires expulsion. McCain wants twelve million or so undocumented migrants to pay a penalty fee of $US5,000 and learn English. Romney’s nostrils flare up at this proposition: all of them have to go. Other Republicans feel immense discomfort at any idea of amnesty.