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24 September 2015

When should you start caring about the US presidential election?

An idiot's guide to the greatest show on earth. 

By Jonn Elledge

Most of the time – a good three quarters of my life, if I’m honest – I have no idea what’s going on in American politics. I’m rarely on that side of the Atlantic, Channel 4 long ago stopped showing The Daily Show, there are only so many hours in the day. It takes all the time I have just to keep up with which British leader put what into which meat product, without trying to keep up with a whole different political system.

At some point over the next few months, though, that will start to change. By next February, I’ll be casually checking the news from normally obscure states such Iowa and New Hampshire. By summer I’ll be quietly obsessed with the exact state of play on the electoral college map. And by this time next year I’ll have undergone a miraculous transformation, metamorphosising from housing policy bore to American polling bore.

There’s something for you all to look forward to.

At the moment though, the presidential election is still more than 13 months away. The horse race may be in full swing, state governors and neurosurgeons you’ve never heard of may be surging ahead or dropping out of the race, and Donald Trump may be trumping happily away – but the actual electorate doesn’t get its say until 8 November 2016.

So, if the big day is that far off, how on earth can the election have already been going on for what seems like centuries? And at what point should we all start paying attention? Here’s a brief guide.

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In the blue corner

One reason the race is generating so much sound and fury so early is that there are not one but two battles underway at the moment, one to be the candidate for each of the US’ two major parties. That’s not true in every election cycle: more often than not, a sitting president or vice president will be one party’s presumptive nominees, so at least one of those two races is basically a formality. 

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Not so, this time. President Obama can’t stand again, because of the pesky 22nd Amendment, and Vice President Joe Biden will be 74 years old by the time the next president is inaugurated, so it’s long been assumed – perhaps wrongly – that he wouldn’t want to run.

The Democrats do have a presumptive nominee, in former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who everyone has long expected to just waltz into the party’s nomination. But a few polls have suggested she might face a bigger challenge from left-wing Vermont senator Bernie Sanders than anyone had thought. Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is also in the race, as is Virginia senator Jim Webb, and Joe Biden might throw his hat into the ring after all. It’s Clinton’s to lose, but lose she might.

In the red corner

If the Dems’ race might actually be about to get interesting, the Republican one long ago passed straight through “interesting” and right on into “insane”.

At time of writing there are 15 candidates in the race, which is actually down from the 17 there were a few weeks ago. The field is so big that, when Fox News hosted a debate on 6 August, it ended up splitting it into two debates – one for seven candidates, the other for 10 – presumably because the studio wasn’t big enough to hold 17 lecterns at once.

Some of the higher profile candidates to watch include Jeb Bush (the former governor of Florida following in a venerable family tradition), Ted Cruz (Latino Texas senator and Tea Party sympathiser), and Carly Fiorina (the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who makes up 100 per cent of the female part of the field). 

But all those guys are pretty much irrelevant at the moment, because the only one anyone is really paying attention to is Donald Trump. I’m not going to explain who Donald Trump is. You already know.

The only candidate who’s managed to interrupt Trump’s patented headline generation system recently is the African American former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who managed to steal the limelight on Sunday when he claimed that Islam is inconsistent with the United States constitution. He’s since clarified that he’d be okay with a Muslim President who respects the constitution, then added that their co-religionists would consider them “infidels and heretics”, so that made everything better.

However you look at it, the Republican race is going to be the fun one. 

How do the parties pick their candidates? 

The election isn’t for 13 and a half months. The nominating conventions at which the parties formally pick their candidates aren’t for 10. 

But the voting starts, in effect, in just over four. On 1 February there’s the Iowa caucus, a series of public meetings at which local party representatives pick delegates to the county conventions. Those delegates get to pick delegates to the state convention, who in turn pick delegates to the national convention. It’s a complicated system, but at every stage the delegates are chosen based on which candidate they back, and in effect it means that local party hacks get to choose who the state supports at the nomination conventions in July. 

Just over a week after Iowa, there’s the New Hampshire primary, which is easier to explain because it’s just an election, in which people vote on who they’d like the parties’ nominees to be in November. Some states have open primaries, where anyone can vote; some have closed ones, where you have to be a party member. A few are awkward buggers like Iowa and have caucses. 

At any rate, over a period of a few weeks, we’ll learn how popular various candidates really are with the voters, and most of them will realise that they’ve been wasting millions of dollars on a pipedream, and will drop out. The longer the primary season goes on for, the more the field will thin.

So when will the parties make a decision?

Officially, the candidates aren’t chosen until late July. The national conventions are where the candidates are formally nominated, and the primaries are meant to be all about picking the delegates who get to make that decision. As late as the 1970s, it was sometimes unclear who a presidential candidate would be until the last night of the convention.

The conventions haven’t really played that role for decades, though: instead they’re about showing off a candidate who’s already been chosen, and showing how the party is uniting behind them. (Since the parties’ biggest names have been enthusiastically kicking the shit out of each other for a year and a half by then, this is an important role.) 

What is more likely is that, by some indeterminate point in the primary season, every other serious candidate will have dropped out, and it’ll become blindingly obvious who each party’s nominee is. If one party gets there substantially quicker than the other, that might give them an advantage, because their candidate can go around looking all presidential, while the other party is still messing around in the dirt.

Perversely, the primary system means that some state parties might not really get their say at all. Iowa and New Hampshire between them represent just 1.4 per cent of the US population – but because they vote first, they can have a real impact on who gets to run for president. California, the most populous state in the union, is nearly nine times bigger than the two of them combined; but by the time it votes in June, the decision may already have been made. 

How does the general election work?

California is a state – one of many states – whose voters get screwed in presidential elections in other ways, too. The presidential election doesn’t work on a one person, one vote system. It uses an electoral college, with each state getting the same number of votes as it has senators and congressmen.

But because every state gets two senators, regardless of size, big states like California are actually under represented relative to small ones like Wyoming. Votes in California literally count for less.

There’s more. Over the last 25 years or so, US politics has ossified. “Blue states”- in the north east, upper midwest and on the west coast – are reliably Democratic. “Red states” – mostly in the south and middle – are reliably Republican. 

In all, just 10 states have changed hands at any point during the last four elections: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. A couple of others (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) are sometimes described as swing states, but have, in recent history, repeatedly failed to swing (both tend to vote Democratic).

By this time next year, you’re going to be hearing a lot about those 12 states.

On, and just for the record – there are 538 electors in the electoral college. In a two-horse race, to get elected president, you need to win 270 votes. That’s the magic number.

So – when should I start caring about the US election?

Well, never, if you don’t want to. It isn’t compulsory.

In practice, though, the primaries start in February, the candidates will be known by July, the race will become hard to ignore after the Labor Day holiday in early September, and the election itself is in early November. Then the new president takes office on 20 January 2017. 

After that, we can all go back to ignoring US politics until the 2020 presidential election kicks off, some time around Christmas 2018.

You think I’m joking, don’t you? If only I were.

***

Now listen to Jonn discussing the US presidential election on the NS podcast: