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11 February 2008

Americans in London

Just what influence do American voters living in London have over the US Presidential primaries? Wel

By Raffaello Pantucci

In the midst of the inflated rhetoric, the hours of media coverage, the mind-boggling volume of money, the spats it is often easy to forget we still have not started the actual American election campaign.

In fact, pundits and politicians alike have been running hard now for more than a year, and still have many months to go until Election Day on 4 November.

The reason for this endurance competition is, of course, George Bush’s exceptional power to alienate. Poll after poll has showed in many different, nuanced, and complex ways exactly how much the world thinks America is screwing things up.

It has been “a weary eight years living here” says Louise Ford, an active London-based Republican who helps as events co-ordinator for the Republicans Abroad.

Unlike their Democratic counterparts, the Republicans Abroad have no funding or official structure and are instead a loose networking organization that hosts regular get-togethers for likeminded Americans living abroad.

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They provide a forum for discussion of Republican politics and are organizing a black tie dinner sometime later in the year with a guest speaker from the US (still to be decided) and when President Bush came to London, they did an event on the side with adviser Karl Rove.

While they have no official standing within the party, those “who recognize their value, seek them out” Ms Ford points out and they regularly host visiting Republican legislators for events.

Their value to the primaries campaign on the Republican side, however, is hard to calculate at this early point. Republicans living abroad who want to vote in the primaries have to send in absentee ballots to their home states in the United States (so if you are from a caucus state, tough luck), and often these ballots arrive late, get lost or are ignored. This year may be different given the tight nature of many of the races, but at this point the question is moot.

On the Democratic side it is quite a different picture, and not just because they lack the Bush albatross around their necks. Democrats Abroad are a fully recognized and funded subset of the Democratic National Party, who are able to elect delegates, who get seats at the party’s national convention.

Their big primary event was held at the Porchester Hall in London on Super-duper-tsunami-Tuesday where the tally, according to the oracular London Paper, was Obama 971, Clinton 422. The event itself was something of a restrained zoo, with Obama supporters making the most noise as calm queues of displaced Americans wandered in to cast their votes in a secret ballot.

For Sarah Feurey, a young New Yorker who has stayed on in London after completing post-graduate studies, the whole experience was her first time voting abroad. She was surprised by the amount of people who were at Porchester Hall, and ultimately threw her lot in with Senator Clinton, whom she describes as “the most Presidential candidate”. Both of the friends who went with her, however, chose Senator Obama.

The reality, however, is that in both cases, the actual impact of the votes themselves in questionable. While there may be six million Americans living outside the United States, the volume of them who can and do vote is negligible – the clear exception to this rule is of course the military, who vote with a due precision. Hence the reason why not many of the campaigns have bothered to leave American borders thus far.

However, they are clearly here in spirit for other reasons. This weekend, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is hosting a “global conference call” with none other than former President Bill Clinton, who will provide thoughts on “the race, discuss issues of particular interest to overseas voters, remind us all to vote online in the Global Primary and tell us why Hillary is in it to win!” Priced at a minimum of $50 and being held in Notting Hill, the call is an example of one big thing that the parties can gather from this corpus of displaced Americans: money.

According to the Financial Times, “Americans living in London alone contributed $326,993 to presidential campaigns in the first three quarters of this election cycle … more than came out of Alaska, Montana, North Dakota or South Dakota.” And this is probably an underestimate, as “some expatriates contribute using domestic addresses or leaving off addresses entirely.”

Now that the Republicans have chosen their candidate, the Republicans Abroad are freer to start really engaging on this campaign and raise money for their party’s election coffers. On the Democratic side, however, the battle goes on, with both Obama and Clinton looking like they will be slugging it out all the way to the convention. For the rest of the world, however, we get to continue to watch this match up without any voice.