Why Anthony Weiner is America's Boris Johnson

"Carlos Danger" is the man New Yorkers just can't let go of.

New York is in the grip of two things right now. The first is a dripping heatwave; nearly 40 degrees last weekend, humid, a relentless creeping heat; not even night brings respite from the temperature. The city is drenched in sweat. 

The second thing gripping New York is comeback fever.

There is an election of metropolitan government offices this November, and before the election comes the primary, and all eyes are on the Democratic primary this time around for two posts in particular. The first is Mayor, of course; the mayor of New York is one of the most powerful people in the country, replacing the quietly powerful Michael Bloomberg who has been in the job since 2002; and the second is comptroller, the second-most powerful position in the city.

Current frontrunners for both of these positions are two men with one thing in common – they are both repentant sinners, asking the for electoral forgiveness for tabloid-splash sex scandals that ruined earlier careers. 

The headline act, running for mayor, is former congressman Anthony Weiner – the name, as everyone and their intern have already pointed out, is an all-too-easy punchline – who fell from grace as in 2011 for accidentally tweeting a picture of his briefs-clad penis instead of direct-messaging it, which led to a storm of other revelations which quickly drove him from his job. By all accounts, Weiner was not unfaithful in real life – he just maintained a series of candid online relationships. But: his name is Weiner. Tabloid catnip.

Running for comptroller, and sharing Weiner's ticket if he wins the nomination, is the former Governor of New York and fiery former state attorney-general before that, Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in 2008 when information surfaced about his lavish prostitute habit.

But America, more than anything else, loves a penitent sinner. If recent polling is any indication, they love them more than one who has never sinned at all: the day after it emerged that Weiner had used the name “Carlos Danger” to send sexual pictures and messages to a 23-year-old blogger as recently as last summer, not just after his resignation from Congress but while he was planning his comeback in a long and soul-searching interview with the New York Times magazine, a Quinnipiac poll placed him four points ahead of his next rival Christine Quinn – though it should be noted that barely overlapped with the latest developments, so may not fully reflect the public mood. Spitzer, in the same poll, leads his closest rival 48-33.

“The problem isn't adultery, or perversity. It's wielding your position of authority to subjugate the women who dream of a piece of the pie,” tweeted Lena Dunham about Weiner, but she's got the situation all wrong. A politician who sends a picture of his penis to someone online is getting not a sadistic thrill but a masochistic one. Weiner volunteered for the ultimate vulnerability, and his public flagellation since has been an extension of that. He has a self-destructive streak.

Ironically, that may well turn out to be the making of him. Were it not for the "sexting", far fewer people would recognise the name of Anthony Weiner. He would be a decent but undistinguished part of the Democratic congressional machine who would have had to get famous, as it were, the hard way. The office of Mayor of New York would be far beyond his reach.

These scandals now have a formulaic familiarity to them now. First the news breaks; then a sacrifice is demanded: a stepping-down, a public humiliation. An apology from a podium, flanked – in Weiner's case – by a nobly suffering spouse, his wife, Clinton aide Huma Abedin, whom he married less than a year before the scandal first broke. A period of grace must follow, out of the public eye. But then, after that sentence has elapsed, the Penitent Sinner is welcomed back, often – as here – more popular than ever. Bill Clinton was the template for all of this; impeached after lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he ended up leaving office with the highest approval rating of any President since the Second World War.

It also helps Spitzer and Weiner that New York loves an outsider. As candidates famous in their own right, even if the fame is more like infamy, neither of the two have to toe any party line. Scandal revealed, paradoxically, lends the two an air of candour that evades other politicians. Weiner, with his worn-out punchline of a name, is famous: and America worships fame more than anything else. Spitzer, for his sins, just comes across as a straight-shooter. The conclusion has to be this: America is a country that more readily gives a second chance than a first.

Londoners will know only too well how this goes. Our own Boris Johnson was elected almost entirely on the strength of name recognition, and is able to shrug off scandal after love-child scandal; he is a loveable rogue. It is down this well-trodden path that 'Carlos Danger' now hopes to tread; he hopes, like Johnson, to turn the joke to his advantage.

It's possible that he may have fluffed his second chance by continuing to sin during his period in the dog-house – but the smart money is still on him and Spitzer to win come November.

Anthony Weiner. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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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.