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by Rebecca McQuillan
04 February 2020
Holyrood guide to the US presidential election

Donald Trump - Image credit: Press Association

Holyrood guide to the US presidential election

Do politicians ever stop electioneering? Not really. President Donald Trump has held rallies of his supporters throughout his first three years in office.

Even so, campaigning for the next US presidential election starts in earnest… now. February 3 marks the beginning of the 2020 primary season, with the first contest as usual taking place in Iowa, though this year there’s the small matter of a presidential impeachment trial at the same time. 

Holyrood has put together your essential guide to the primaries and caught up with Phil Davies, emeritus professor of American Studies at De Montfort University and co-chair of the American Politics Group of UK academics, to mine his encyclopaedic knowledge and get his predictions for the forthcoming election, likely to be the most bitterly fought in years.

First, the trial of Donald Trump. Having been impeached by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives (firstly for abusing his office by withholding security aid and a White House meeting from the Ukrainian government until it agreed to announce an investigation that would harm Democratic hopeful Joe Biden; and secondly for obstructing Congress), Trump is now on trial at the Republican-controlled Senate. A two-thirds majority is required to convict.

With no sign yet of a single Republican changing sides, and given the margin required to find him guilty, the question is not whether he will be convicted – barring a sensational turn of events, he won’t – but whether any Republicans vote against him.

“Impeachment could be deeply embarrassing for him or it could be an ace-in-the-hole,” says Davies.

The Republican attack line is already clear – that it’s a partisan sham by Democrats who always intended to impeach Trump anyway. The Republicans look set to try and divert attention from Trump’s behaviour by talking about Biden and his son (though there is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden).

Whipping up anger with the Democrats has worked for the Republicans before. Davies says: “There is a strong argument made by the Republicans that they held the Senate at the midterm elections because of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings [in which sexual misconduct charges were levelled at the Republicans’ supreme court nominee].”

Acquittal would probably boost Trump with his supporters and potential supporters. “They will see the whole thing as a crisis manufactured by the Democrats and an attack on American democracy. Trump will say it vindicates him, like he said with Mueller [the special counsel investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, which ended with no further action being taken against Trump].

But it is a volatile situation. If new, unsavoury examples of the president’s behaviour come to light, he might not be able to bluster his way out of it.

Which brings us to the election. The vast majority of people will vote in the same way as last time, predicts Davies, so a small number of voters will decide the outcome.

On the strength of current rune reading, Davies predicts a close-run contest but a Trump victory. “There’s still plenty to play for – he’s by no means a shoo-in – but until the Democrats have a candidate, he’s got a clear run. Incumbent presidents are usually re-elected.”

Trump has poor public approval ratings, but he does score well in one area – his handling of the economy – which could be crucial.

It’s a crowded field for the Democrats, with candidates including Biden, left-wingers Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, millennial Pete Buttigieg, understated moderate Amy Klobuchar and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg.

A left-wing candidate winning the Democrat nomination, like Sanders or Warren, could have a harder time unseating Trump, predicts Davies.

 “The Trump campaign would attack a progressive Democrat candidate along the lines of bringing socialism to America. There would be nothing to stop him painting the Democrats as neo-Communist threats to America.

“It will probably be easier for one of the more moderate ones like Biden – they will have to present a message to the nation that effectively pulls back to the centre of the political spectrum and tries to portray the policies they’ve got, like healthcare, as the natural heritage of America’s history, of personal rights and individual opportunity, rather than that these are policies that give benefits to ‘undeserving people’.”

The Democrats must do three things to have a chance of winning.

“They need to get a candidate by April and unite behind that person – you need the losing hopefuls to rally quickly and hard for the winner.

“Their nightmare scenario would be having four people battling it out right up to the Convention.

“Secondly, it’s quite clear that the important thing is getting out your supporters to vote. If the Democrats in 2016 had got 80,000 more voters to vote in three huge states – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – they would have won.”

Trump won by 0.2, 0.7 and 0.8 per cent respectively in those three states. In Michigan, a state with 7.5m registered voters, his victorious margin was only 10,704 votes, while it was 44,292 in Pennsylvania and 22,748 in Wisconsin. Those ballots delivered him 46 electoral college votes.

“If Trump were to win the electoral college but lose the popular vote for a second time, he would be the first president in history to do so,” notes Davies, “though five presidents have done it for one term only.”

Thirdly, the Democrats must try and reconnect with those in former industrial areas who are feeling the pinch. Talking up infrastructure investment, as Trump did in the 2016 election, could be one way the Democrats could rebuild links with those voters.

Incumbent presidents must still secure their party’s nomination when seeking a second term, though many of the Republican primaries will in effect be rallies for Donald Trump.

But he doesn’t have it all his own way. He is facing a determined challenge from Bill Weld, the liberal former governor of Massachusetts.

Though unlikely to be successful, it is conceivable that in one of the early primaries, such as New Hampshire, liberal Republicans and unaffiliated voters could give Trump a bloody nose by backing Weld.

There are further potential hitches for the Republicans. “It’s certainly clear that Trump’s behaviour plays very badly with suburban Republicans,” notes Davies.

“The results of the midterms, the governorship of Kentucky and the Virginia state legislature show there are a group of educated, relatively well-off Republicans who are unhappy with Trump. The Democrats have to concentrate on that group.

“There’s a sense that suburban areas are becoming somewhat more politically liberal and some of the southern and south western states are shifting more towards the Democrats because of the increased significance of the Latino and black vote.

“The black population is stable, but more members of the black community are getting out to vote.”

The immediate question, however, is who will become the Democratic nominee. Iowa and New Hampshire are the two first primary contests, but they are perhaps less significant than they once were.

“A couple of elections ago, Iowa and New Hampshire were getting 25 per cent of all media coverage, but they haven’t been very good at picking out winners for quite a while – though they do winnow out potential losers,” says Davies.

Three delegate-heavy states, Texas, Massachusetts and now California, take place shortly afterwards on Super Tuesday and those votes could overshadow the earlier primaries.

This year, the New Hampshire primary may also end up being dominated by two locals who hail from neighbouring states, Warren (Massachusetts) and Sanders (Vermont), giving other candidates less of a chance to become the surprise winner and preventing Joe Biden, the centrist candidate, from getting off to a flying start.

Davies agrees that the campaigns have become more nationalised, partly due to social media, but he does not discount the importance of local issues and the value of appearing in a state like New Hampshire in person, which can allow less prominent candidates to move up the pack.

“Scout jamborees, the Women’s Institute, anywhere where there are more than 25 people can probably attract one or more of the candidates and that personal contact is very important.”



What are they?

Used by both the Democrats and Republicans, primaries and caucuses are methods by which party members in a state (and sometimes other voters too) decide which candidate they want as their presidential nominee.

The current system has been in operation since the 1970s.

The Democrats will hold 57 contests (50 states, Washington DC, five territories and Democrats Abroad) but the Republicans will hold fewer, since some contests have already been cancelled (including Alaska, Arizona, South Carolina and Nevada). Cancelling primaries to smooth the way for an incumbent president is not unusual, though some have accused the party of denying members a choice.

A primary is organised by the state government and voters make their choice by secret ballot. Most states hold primaries rather than caucuses.

A caucus is more old-fashioned. It is run by state party officials and is a face-to-face meeting of registered party members in a local area. They debate the merits of each candidate before voting takes place. In Republican caucuses, this is usually by secret ballot, but in Democratic caucuses, voters typically huddle into groups to show their support for different candidates.

What then?

Each state sends a group of delegates to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions (how many in total depends on the size of the state’s population). In Democratic primaries, delegates from a state are allocated on a proportional basis to the votes the candidates win, though a threshold applies, meaning that a candidate must receive 15 per cent of the primary vote to receive any delegates at all, a rule that critics say favours the frontrunners.

In some Republican primaries, it’s a winner-takes-all system.

Who takes part in caucuses and primaries?

That depends.

Let’s take primaries first. There are closed primaries (only a party’s registered members can vote); open primaries (where any voter can vote in a party’s primary – they must choose just one – even if they are a member of the opposing party); and a semi-closed primary (in which unaffiliated voters may vote as well as the party’s registered members).

Caucuses are usually restricted to a party’s members.

What are superdelegates?

These are delegates to the convention who are separate from those allocated by the primaries and caucuses. They tend to be party officials and activists.

In the Democratic party, about 15 per cent of delegates to the Convention are superdelegates and they may vote for whomever they want. This has been criticised as being undemocratic so the Democratic National Committee has limited their influence – in 2020 superdelegates will not be able to vote in the first ballot at the Convention, so will only have a role if the selection process is deadlocked.



February 3 – Iowa caucus, the first of the presidential candidate nomination season. The Iowa caucus is important, not because the demographics of Iowa reflect the US in microcosm – they don’t – but because it narrows the field. Candidates that fall at this hurdle usually quit the race shortly afterwards. As a caucus, it’s also unpredictable and the buzz around it can give the winner momentum.

Iowa gives the Midwest its first say in the primary process. The other February primaries give other regions a say – New England, the west and the south.

February 11 – New Hampshire primary. Traditionally a primary that requires the candidates to get out and meet voters in small venues, New Hampshire traditionally prided itself on picking the eventual winner.

February 22 – Nevada Democratic caucus

February 29 – South Carolina Democratic primary

March 3 – Super Tuesday, so-called because many states and territories (this time 16) vote on the same day. This means that, instead of focusing on the concerns of one group of voters in a small state – white rural communities, for instance – the candidates have to show they have broad support. California, a huge state, will be on Super Tuesday for the Democrats for the first time, along with two other big states, Texas and Massachusetts.

If Super Tuesday produces a clear winner, they usually win the nomination.

March 10 – six more primaries, including Michigan with its 125 delegates

March 17 – four more primaries, including biggies in Florida, Illinois and Ohio

April 28 – six more, including the major ones of New York and Pennsylvania

Other primaries: March 8, 12, 14, 24 and 29; April 4 and 7; May 2, 5, 12 and 19; and June 2.

July 13-16 – Democratic National Convention, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in which the party’s 2020 presidential nominee will be announced

August 24-27 – Republican National Convention, in Charlotte, North Carolina

September–October – three televised debates between the two candidates

November 3 – presidential election

January 20, 2021 – inauguration of the new president

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