Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Whittling Down

Since my last post Richardson (Dem), Thompson (GOP), and now Giuliani (GOP) and Edwards (Dem) have dropped out.

That leaves two very close races, each of which is unusual in its own way.

On the Democrat side you have a very tight race. There was the potential for additional the drama due to the way in which votes are counted, but then Edwards dropped out. In the American system each party nominates their candidates at a convention some months before the presidential election. Each state has some number of delegates (more or less proportional to population) plus there are a few at-large delegates. In the months leading up to the convention different states choose their delegates in various different ways (I'll just call this "the primaries", although, technically speaking, some of them are "caucuses"). What's interesting about the Democratic Party's primaries is that the delegates from each state are not awarded in a winer-takes-all manner (as is the case for the GOP). Instead all the candidates receiving more than a certain percentage of the vote will pick up some delegates. Edwards, despite having no chance whatsoever of winning the nomination outright, or even of winning in any state, was still getting more than the cutoff. As a result he might have been able to pick up enough delegates to prevent Obama and Clinton themselves from picking up more than 50% of the delegates.

If, somehow, nobody were to win more than 50% of the delegates then we would see something that should be familiar to many Canadians: wheeling and dealing to try to get delegates to switch sides and to get weaker candidates to throw their support behind stronger candidates. It's unlikely, but technically possible to for something to occur similar to when St├ęphane Dion leapfrogged ahead of Ignatieff and Rae to become the Liberal Party's leader. What would have been more likely, is for Edwards to trade his delegates for a position in any future administration (and let's face it, it looks like the Democrats are going to win the White House this year regardless of who's running).

Edwards could still trade his support to try to get the VP-nomination (for the second time). But also, Edwards is a malpractice-lawsuit lawyer by profession, and his whole campaign is built around a populist America-first, anti-business/pro-workers message so he would probably be happy to have one of the Cabinet positions that is relevant to his agenda; perhaps Attorney-General, Secretary of Labor, or Secretary of Commerce (or a combined Secretary of Commerce and Labor position).

...

Enough about the Dems, the really interesting fight is taking place on the Republican side.

Early in the primaries, when Giuliani had a lead in the national polls, some important conservative voices openly toyed with the idea of backing a third party candidate. Rudy's out now, but many of those same voters are going to be unhappy with the remaining candidates. Some conservatives are still unhappy with McCain over his support for an immigration-reform bill (paradoxically this bill was also strongly supported by Bush - and his base of support is those same social conservatives). On the other hand Romney's recent conversion from relatively liberal positions to a party-line message is of dubious authenticity. The term "flip-flopper" was overused in 2004, but if Romney is the GOP candidate you will hear that phrase even more frequently. The recent, suspiciously convenient, changes in his views on abortion, and gay-rights, and illegal-immigration will be replayed time and time again on news programs and in attack ads.

The other remaining candidate, Mike Huckabee, has no chance of winning. However, while I previously dismissed him as a not-serious candidate, he has actually done fairly well in the debates and on the stump. His biggest weakness is in-and-of-itself a fatal one: he is clumsy when discussing foreign policy. While it might be true that candidate George Bush (in 2000) also had foreign policy that was low on nuance, this is more of a liability now with the country involved in 1, 2, or 3 wars (is the War on Terror it's own war? Are Iraq and Afghanistan just 2 fronts in the same war?). On other topics, such as the Economy, Huckabee has come up with some quite impressive rhetoric, check out this ad:


Furthermore, I've found out a little bit more about him, and he actually has some views that might appeal to moderate voters (as well as his Evangelical base) if he were to get the GOP nomination. For example there's this from Slate:
Fiscally, and in his attitude toward social funding and even criminal justice, Huckabee has a record any DLC Democrat would be proud of ...In his book From Hope to Higher Ground, Huckabee includes a whole chapter called "STOP the revenge-based criminal justice system." He writes about how racial inequities are built into the system, and he approvingly quotes one prison official who told him, "We lock up a lot of people that we are mad at rather than just the ones we are really afraid of," and another who "astutely observed we don't have a crime problem, we have a drug and alcohol problem."


Unfortunately for Huckabee, not even Walker Texas Ranger can keep him from losing the race.

Between McCain and Romney the race is still too close to call. Regardless of who wins, the current back and forth over which one of them is really a liberal in disguise is only going to hurt. There's already a rather low level of enthusiasm about the GOP candidates, and if this translates to low voter turn-out amongst social-conservatives it will further help Obama/Clinton.

One other thing to keep in mind is that the GOP primaries are winner-takes-all, and the Evangelical vote is strongest in the South. Huckabee could try to stay in the race in order to win some of those states, and then aim to play kingmaker at the GOP convention. Huckabee as VP would go a long way towards soothing those social conservatives that are despondent about their choices.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, their ideal candidate does not exist. If he did he would resemble some sort of Frankenstein candidate with McCain's foreign policy, and war experience, Romney's business experience, and with Huckabee's religious street-cred. More realistically, the ideal candidate might have looked like a younger and more energetic Fred Thompson.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

My guide to the US primaries for Canadians

I'm not stupid enough to blog about my political views, but I am fascinated by this election, and as a Canadian I feel like I can share some impartial observations.

On the Dem side it's a close, hard-fought race between Clinton and Obama. On the GOP side there is much greater volatility... it will probably be "close" in the sense that voters & donors will probably rally around 2 candidates, but which 2 is still up in the air.

Huckabee
A month ago I would have said that Huckabee is not a serious candidate. Now it looks like he's gaining supporters but I read that as a sign that Republicans are unhappy with their other choices, rather than any enthusiasm for his rather thin political agenda. He's an SNL skit waiting to happen (of course, SNL being what it is, it wouldn't be a funny skit). He's filling a policy gap in the GOP field (i.e. he's an actual conservative, and always has been). But in terms of being prepared for the presidency, he's too flaky, and will probably get crushed in the election by whoever the Dems run. Need proof? Take a look at his response to the Bhutto assassination.

Obama
He's got great presence. And he's got an electorate, especially on the Dem side, that's been very unhappy with the last 8 years (or, maybe 6 of the last 8), and are eager to lash out at anything and anyone that had anything to do with, or anything positive to say about the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, tax cuts, or any of a number of controversial (and in some cases, possibly illegal) events. On the other hand he ran for the Senate against a complete kook after the original GOP candidate dropped out due to a sex scandal. Clintonites are trying to use this as proof that he's untested/inexperienced.

It'll be interesting to see how the race thing plays out. On the one hand he rarely mentions his race, and that probably contributes to the image of him as a uniter (especially when you compare him with past Black candidates like, say, Sharpton). That's got to play well with traditional, white Dems in the states that are most highly contested. On the other hand, this same thing might not play well with Black voters. Bill Clinton had good relations with African Americans, and Hillary could win those votes unless Obama gives them a reason to vote for him beyond his feel-good "we need a change" speeches, which tend to play better with yuppies and college Democrats.

Also, his race is probably preventing the press from being harsher in their criticism of him. (It's like that Onion article about Will Smith being "the black man the whole office can agree on.") This would be ok for the Dems as long as the press agrees to continue in this way until after November. But if they turn up the criticism once he's gotten the nomination, he could face a tough fight against someone like McCain or Romney.

Overall his strengths are particularly well suited for the current political climate: he's flashy and optimistic at a time when many Americans are feeling that their country has gone off-course. His weaknesses are his inexperience; to some extent the importance of this factor is going to depend on how much fear-of-terrorism affects voters decisions. Given the war fatigue that's swept the country, this might not be such a big deal.

Clinton
I'm not sure that I have anything to say that everyone doesn't already know. One thing that stands out is that the press has been especially nasty in their coverage, and I can't help but feel that this is because she's a woman.

Also, for my Canadian buddies, sometimes conservatives will derisively refer to "Hillarycare" - a supposedly socialist health care proposal that she advanced in the 90's. In fact it falls far short of Canada's health care system in terms of comprehensiveness, and public financing.

McCain
Many Republican's distrust this "maverick", but if dissatisfied with the other options they might rally around him. He's been outspoken in his support for the Iraq war and the "troop surge," and since the surge has been getting some positive reviews, this might help him.

Romney
I have no idea what to make of this guy. Does his Mormonism turn off conservative voters? Living in Madison, WI - supposedly one of the most "liberal" cities in the States, it's pretty hard to get a good read on how religious voters will react to a Mormon - with a history of "liberal" policies as Governor of Massachusetts. Add in to the mix the fact that business interests have rallied around him and you might have the perfect situation for a working-class Evangelical candidate like Huckabee. Or maybe not, I have no idea what's going on with the whole Romney thing.

Now that he's lost the first 2 major contests, it might be that his backers will look for a new candidate to support - one who's might can actually seal the deal. Perhaps McCain?

Guiliani
Maybe one of the most well known candidates for Canadians. His campaign seems to have imploded. Liberals deride his "9-11 Tourette's" (which, I'm pretty sure, is not a very PC thing to say), but the strange thing is how little support he's getting from Republican voters despite having lined up a host of high profile endorsements. After having sunk a ton of money into Iowa and New Hampshire, Guiliani tried to save face by "pulling out" and focusing on later primaries. It's hard to see how this can be painted as anything less than hugely embarrassing.

I'm not sure if GOPers dislike his somewhat liberal social positions (he supports gay rights, and abortion rights), or if they just don't like his "personality". He's got a kind of weird presence, for example check out his Xmas ad:

I'm pretty sure that this didn't win him any votes.

Compare this with Huckabee's ad with a little wink-wink message for Evangelical voters:

Did you notice the floating cross? It's just a bookshelf (it's all about plausible deniability). Also: this is ripe for parody. This is ripe!

Thompson
The only other "true" conservative in the race. If he were younger and showed more energy in campaigning, I'm pretty sure he would have been a leading candidate. It's probably a waste of your time and mine to think about him. He no longer has a chance at winning, and will probably not be involved in politics after dropping out. A footnote.

Edwards
He's pretty much done now that he's lost both Iowa and New Hampshire. His support comes largely from the Lou Dobbs wing of the Democratic party (i.e. the xenophobes and anti-free-traders).

Richardson
This guy dropped out, but he was basically only in the race to keep his name in the news - in hopes of winning the VP nomination.


Well, those are all of the important candidates. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. It's very different from Canadian political circus.