Economics Society: The US Elections Part 2

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Three months ago, my colleague Bertie Cook asked in our blog whether Britons should care about the US election.

Back in those heady days, when the primaries lay before us and the world seemed open to the prospect of a range of presidential hopefuls from Lincoln Chaffee to Ben Carson, anything seemed possible. Yet in the cut-throat world of American politics a lot can change in three months, and so it has, as now it seems a foregone conclusion that this year’s presidential election will be fought between the Democrat Hillary Clinton and the Republican Donald Trump.

The last fortnight has witnessed a truly spectacular implosion of the ‘Grand Old Party’ (GOP – Republican) field of candidates. Where once there were seventeen, the field rapidly narrowed so that by mid-March the withdrawal of humiliated Florida Senator Marco Rubio left just front-runner Trump, hard-line conservative Ted Cruz and moderate Ohio governor John Kasich. These candidates each drew great attention in the primaries, making it one of the liveliest seasons in years.

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Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric isolating Latinos, Afro-Americans, Muslims and women proved surprisingly popular; he soon pulled ahead in the primaries, winning the vast majority of delegates even in states that had initially seemed strongly against him.

Cruz – initially seen as every bit as radical as Trump, coming from the born-again Christian camp, a major GOP constituency – soon emerged as the Republican national leadership’s main opposition to ‘The Donald’. Considerations of his deeply conservative policies were put aside in favour of a perception that voters would find Cruz more palatable than Trump. Despite a strong victory in Iowa, the opening state, Cruz soon fell behind; he dropped out of the running on 3 May, leaving only Kasich.

The moderate Kasich was felt to be the last hope of the ‘#NotTrump’ campaign, a movement that is rare in the modern era of American politics in uniting liberals and conservatives. Kasich – who was considered ‘fourth in a three-horse race’ due to his inability to overtake Rubio’s delegate share – pulled out the day after Cruz, leaving Trump’s path open to nomination at an ‘uncontested’ party convention, to be held on 18–21 July at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

By comparison, the Democratic field initially closed down very quickly. Before the dust had even settled in Iowa, following the opening caucus night, Martin O’Malley, the last of the ‘minor’ Democrat candidates left standing, had withdrawn. Yet what should have been Hillary Clinton’s race to win has been slowed to a long slog. Despite her breadth of policy experience, liberal platform, political acumen and extensive resources, Clinton’s campaign has found itself mired in a state-by-state struggle with Bernie Sanders’ formidable grassroots support.

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Sanders is an American original: the veteran Senator from Vermont for long sat in Congress as an independent, espousing ‘socialist’ values (by US standards). He has crowd-funded his campaign through personal donations – in the process uniquely conforming to America’s strict rules on political funding, at a time when many politicians mobilise the notorious political action committees (PACs) to bypass the law.

Emerging as the champion of the anti-establishment left, Sanders has attracted criticism from many circles, notably because he refuses to ‘play the political game’ by attacking his opponent or to sharpen his personal presentation – bad hair seems to be something of a theme of the 2016 presidential election.

Instead he focuses solely on his core issues, ones that are familiar to even the most conservative of Britons – stronger welfare systems, universal healthcare, cheaper university and higher taxes for the rich – yet in America mean he is regarded as a radical.

‘Bernie’ has galvanised many younger voters, but the Clinton juggernaut now seems unstoppable. A woman whose presidential run has been more than twenty years in the making, who has seen the inside of the White House in many roles, and who carries the support of diverse sections of society, she looks set now to win the nomination. It is noticeable though that her rhetoric has changed in recent weeks to reflect what can only be described as a left-wing insurgency in the party electorate.

So what does this mean? There’s still a lot to play for. Both candidates are considering their vice presidential running mates – a chance for prior drop-outs from the campaign, or politicians who have wider electoral appeal to ‘balance’ the ticket, to insert themselves a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Campaigns must now be changed to appeal on a national level rather than just the die-hard party supporters who typically vote in primaries. Already the ‘pragmatic’ Trump can be seen to be centralising his positions, though the authenticity of one of his recent tweets stating “I love Hispanics,” has raised more than a few eyebrows.

Clinton is favourite to emerge as president, but Trump has proved a such wild card that a win from right-field cannot be ruled out. Some would argue that while Trump carries the support of a majority of primary voters, many of these are inherently linked to the extreme wings of the party; nationwide he has the lowest approval rating of any presidential candidate in decades, and the refusal of any living former Republican president or presidential candidate to endorse him does not bode well for his election prospects.

But it’s no shoo-in: Clinton must fend off the threat of Sanders without compromising her national campaign, weather the potential storm of a Congressional hearing on her use of official emails and, ultimately, rally the support of a majority of the American population.

It is clear that November 2016 will be quite a month for the political landscape.

So how does this all relate to 800 students ensconced in a small Sussex village? Seemingly, it has no bearing on us, yet the statement holds true that the American president is ‘The most powerful person in the world’. Britain and America have a sometimes rocky relationship, yet there remains a special link between our nations: militarily, politically and culturally. Who rules in Washington, will have a far greater influence on Westminster than might be apparent.

It is important that we students know what is going on. World politics may seem a distant issue, yet it is vitally important that we take the time to read about it, learn about it and ultimately take part in it.

America’s dream president, The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlet, once observed: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world”.

I believe this rings true – and, more than ever, we should care about the US election.

 

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