Perry v. Romney: what the papers say

The verdict of US commentators on the first ever Tea Party-associated Republican presidential debate

The fifth debate in the Republican primaries was significantly different to the four that preceded it, as it was the first-ever Tea Party-affiliated debate in the history of US politics. It was sponsored by CNN and Tea Party Express, the California-based group founded in 2009 to support the Tea Party Movement. The debate was moderated by CNN anchor, Wolf Blitzer.

Texas governor and Tea Party favourite, Rick Perry -- known for his outspoken and conservative views -- came under attack from his fellow contenders over the issues of social security, vaccinations and America's foreign and immigration policies. Perry was also booed by the audience as he defended his policy of allowing in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants in Texas.

Hours before the debate took place, nominee favourites Perry and Mitt Romney both received campaign endorsements. Perry was backed by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, while Romney won the support of former rival candidate Tim Pawlenty. According to a poll conducted by CNN and ORC international, some 30 per cent of Americans said they would support Perry to be the Republican nominee, compared with 18 per cent for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.

Most American journalists and analysts have focused on the arguments between Perry and Romney. Many concluded that Perry came out on top, although others suggested that Perry actually suffered as a result of criticism from his rivals. Some view the debate as a success for Michele Bachmann, who has fallen behind in the ratings since Perry entered the race.

Here is a round-up of what the US media made of the candidates' performance:

CNN

Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter:

The debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa gave the other candidates on the stage a chance to change what many are portraying as a two-person race between Perry and Romney.

Monday's debate was crucial to Bachmann, who has dropped in national polling since Perry launched his campaign on August 13, the very same day that she won a crucial straw poll in Ames, Iowa.

David Gergen, CNN senior political analyst:

There's no question that Romney and Perry will remain the frontrunners. Romney has a better command of the facts. He's a more practiced debater. He gave one of the best answers of his entire campaign when he was asked how he would balance the budget. But Perry has the command presence, and even though people took shots at him... he deflected reasonably well, he came in as a better debater, he was more even this time.

Erick Erickson, CNN contributor and RedState.com blogger:

I think this may be the first debate where Mitt Romney didn't come out the clear winner. Perry needed to do well. I think he did well. I don't think the Social Security exchange helps Mitt Romney at all at a Republican primary... I think the majority of Republican voters agree with Perry.

Politico

David Catanese:

The real message being delivered was a shot across the bow: Any contender who wants a realistic shot at winning back the White House will need the tea party's fervor to make it happen... Despite solid answers and pre-packaged punches, Mitt Romney struggled to gain traction with the crowd, as his top adviser all but acknowledged afterwards in the spin room.

New York Times

Jeff Zeleny and Ashley Parker:

The rapid rise of Mr Perry, who joined the race only a month ago, made him a central target for his Republican rivals. He sought to deflect the critiques with humor and sarcasm, but he tried to clarify his position on Social Security, whose constitutionality he has questioned... The debate went a long way in clarifying the contours of the Republican contest, both in terms of the strength of the candidates -- for the second time in a row, Mr Romney and Mr Perry were the main players -- but also on the issues driving the race. It is rare in a presidential primary to have such a vivid difference of opinion on a critical issue, as is the case with Mr Romney and Mr Perry on Social Security. The Republican presidential debate often took on the feel of a rollicking political game show... The debate was continually interrupted by applause, but it remained an open question whether the cheers or the jeers provided an accurate reflection of how Republican voters elsewhere were judging the evening.

LA Times

Paul West:

The governor, [Rick Perry] who leads by double-digit margins in early polls, was on the defensive for much of the evening. But he shrugged off most of the attacks with folksy retorts and a bemused look, and he stuck to his guns on the issue that has trailed him since his first national debate appearance last week: Social Security.

The two-hour forum -- the most contentious thus far in the 2012 campaign -- marked a revival of sorts for Michele Bachmann, whose candidacy has suffered as Perry's has taken off over the past month. The two are competing for many of the same conservative votes, but last night the Minnesota congresswoman appeared to have won the hearts of many in the crowd of tea party activists. She drew cheers for a rally-style attack on "Obamacare" -- the president's federal healthcare overhaul -- and for her attack on Perry's controversial decision to order vaccinations in Texas against the HPV virus, which can cause cervical cancer.

The debate's opening felt like a mix between a reality show and a sporting event. Moderator Wolf Blitzer delivered several minutes of introductory remarks above a throbbing bass line, followed by another departure: the singing of the national anthem. ...The event was also something of a formal coming-out party for the tea party movement in the 2012 campaign, a tone set before the telecast began.

Huffington Post

Jon Ward:

The frontrunner status is starting to smart. If Rick Perry felt like a piñata during his first debate last week, the second debate on Monday night might have left the Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate feeling like the bashed-in fax machine in the movie "Office Space". ... Altogether, the three criticisms of Perry chipped away at his image of a rock-ribbed conservative.

As for Bachmann, her fiery attack on Perry was a key moment for the Tea Party favorite. She has been hurt by Perry's entrance into the race - he has overshadowed her with an emphasis on his executive experience and has cut into her support among conservatives. But by tearing the Texan down, Bachmann injected herself back into the race. She still faces an uphill battle against Perry, but if she is to have any chance of staying in the race, she must deconstruct him. All of this helps Romney, who also has seen his standing in the polls diminished by Perry. If Bachmann and Perry are locked in a battle for the right wing of the GOP, that gives Romney a clearer path to the nomination.

The next Republican debate will take place on Thursday 22 September, 2011 in Orlando, Florida. It will be sponsored by Fox News, Google and the Florida Republican Party.

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Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.