An idiot's guide to U.S. primary season 2016

An idiot's guide to U.S. primary season 2016

Here's what you need to know — We all know that there's an election happening in the U.S. right now, but what exactly is a primary? What makes a delegate super? Can Donald Trump really win? And what does it all mean? Here's an idiot's guide to the U.S. primary process in 2016.

Unless you’ve been living in a tent somewhere in the heart of the Australian outback, cut off from all communication for the past twelve months, you’ll know that there’s an election going down in the United States. Maybe you’ve been #FeelinTheBern, trying to figure out which one is Ted Cruz and which one is Marco Rubio, staying up late to watch the seemingly endless debates, or just watching that creepy video on Youtube of three girls doing an awful yet hypnotic dance for Donald Trump.

However you’ve been keeping track of the presidential election, one thing is for sure; it’s really quite confusing. Right now we’re in the midst of primary season, in which each of the 50 states select which candidates they want to represent the two main parties in the battle for the White House. But what does it all really mean? We’ve put together a simple(ish) guide to the primary process so this all becomes slightly easier to understand.

First up, this is what the primaries are for

The idea behind the primaries is one of democracy – voters from across the country have a say in who’ll be battling it out for their votes in the presidential election, and they’ll continue up until July when party conventions are held (more of that later).

Becoming a candidate

Getting yourself on the ballot paper is no mean feat – but with enough money and a bit of support you’re pretty much good to run. While it’s pretty much Republican v Democrat and you need to pick a side, you don’t even need to be a member of a party to run for them.

You will need cold hard cash though, as running a primary election campaign is an expensive game. Establishment candidates like Clinton are likely to be funded by corporations through PACs and Super PACs, as well as by individual donations and personal wealth. If you’re already loaded, as Donald Trump is, you can also fund yourself.

Who gets to vote in the primaries?

When you register to vote in U.S. elections you reveal which party you think you’ll end up supporting – or if you’re still undecided you can register as an independent. In some states open primaries are held – where anyone can vote to pick who gets the nomination for each party. Others hold closed primaries, where only registered supporters get a say.

The Primary itself

State by state, over a period of months, voters pick their favourite candidate and put their slip in the ballot box. Both parties hold their primary on the same day in each location, two races are happening at once. Simple enough.

Trump supporters love Trump

Trump supporters love Trump

Who are delegates and what do they do?

When the votes are all counted up in each state, each candidate gets awarded a number of people to attend the convention based on how well they’ve done in the local vote. The number of delegates from each state varies for each party in each place – you can see a full list here, but there are a total of 2,470 Republican delegates, and 4,483 Democrats.

Just in case this wasn’t confusing enough, some states have caucuses – where supporters gather on a particular day and have a debate, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates before making a selection. It’s more deliberative, but rely on people showing up on the day.

Super Delegates

Super delegates only exist in the Democrat Party, and get to vote in the Democratic National Convention despite being unelected. These guys are party grandees, the big-dogs from across the U.S. who are given a say in the decision making process because of their positions. There are 718 of them in 2016, and include all sitting Democrat governors, and members of the Senate and House of Representatives. These guys can vote for whomever they like, and because of their establishment positions they’re likely to be backing Hilary (as it stands Hilary has 469, while Sanders has just 31).

There is however room for movement – as with the Obama campaign in 2008, if the popular vote from Democrat supporters were to swing heavily in favour of Sanders this year, some super delegates might shift their allegiances, as otherwise they’ll risk looking as if they have contempt for their party members.

What happens at the convention?

Before conventions became a corporate media affair, conventions were places filled with backroom deals and horse-trading, pretty much like in the last season of House of Cards. People promise each other jobs for delegate votes, especially from candidates who’ve now dropped out the race. In recent years, as conventions have received much more attention with the winner known in advance, this has declined. This year we’ll be seeing (or not seeing) a whole load of dodgy dealings.

So if Bernie and Trump win the most delegates, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll end up vying for the presidency?

Exactly. The delegates who head to the conventions are often established party supporters – they’re mostly people who already hold office in each state. Because they have jobs through the party they tend to be close to the leadership as their livelihoods depend on it, and they’re likely to have allegiances to the party machine.

There’s a real danger here for Trump as a lot of delegates won’t like him, they’re part of the Republican Party, and they could easily be campaigning against him right now.

While normally delegates from each state will vote for the candidate their state decided on, experts are getting all excited about the possibility of a contested convention for the Republicans.

photo by Steve Everhardt

photo by Steve Everhardt

Sorry, what is a contested convention?

Here’s where it gets tricky, well, trickier. Firstly, it’s possible for delegates to mess with some state’s rules to let them vote for whoever they’d like. It’s unlikely, but more about that here.

In both parties, to win at the convention you’ll need half of the delegate votes. With the Democrats two horse race that’s pretty simple, but there are multiple candidates on the Republican side. It’s looking less and less likely that Trump will hit that magic 1,237 figure.

If this is the case, then there’ll be a contested convention, and all hell could break loose. As fivethirtyeight put it, in this situation “the 2,472 delegates have nearly unlimited authority to rewrite the convention rules.” As nobody will be a clear winner, there’ll be round and rounds of voting until someone nabs that majority, and by round three all delegates can vote for whoever they like. This could mean Trump winning, Cruz winning, or even someone else entirely.

This presidential primary race is pretty peculiar

The degree of anti-establishment sentiment that has been given a platform by two of the frontrunners is unheard of. Bernie Sanders only became a registered Democrat last year; he’s been an independent since the 1960s. While he might have followed the Democrat party line fairly often as a Senator, he was way ahead of the curve on civil rights, wealth inequality, same sex marriage, racial equality, anti-war movements and a whole load more.

Trump has actually said some very similar things to Sanders– take away the headlines and his core support is non-college educated white people – they want more tax for rich, more welfare, healthcare, and generally are opposed to further military interventions. It’s not an establishment campaign. Difference is that Trump is an ethno-nationalist, and reckons it’s only white working class Americans who deserve a better life.

Experts have pointed at a huge wave of discontent amongst voters with the establishment candidates and their party machines. Sanders has paid for his campaign entirely through individual donations, while Trump has relied on his own personal fortune, which means neither have been forced to adhere to the interests of other powerful figures.

If Trumps wins the Republican race – would Hilary or Bernie be more likely to defeat him?

The general drift from polling is that Clinton is defeating Trump by a bigger margin now than she has been in the past – a poll on Monday put her at 12% lead over Trump if they were to go head to head. Bernie Sanders however still looks more likely to beat Trump should they be the candidates – the most recent poll giving Sanders 53% and Trump just 36%.

It feels like the media has been pretty biased…

Yeah. If you were to believe the British media you’d think Donald Trump was already President. It’s media pornography. The Nation have worked out that Trump is getting 23 times as much free media coverage as Bernie Sanders. The New York Times also found that Trump has received nearly $2 billion in free media exposure in the last year, while Hilary Clinton’s coverage amounted to $746 million.

The media are also giving Tump the kid-glove treatment – he’s not being taken to task on his racism, Islamophobia or misogyny. If any other candidate had said the shit he’d said they’d be out the race, but Trump’s right-wing media backing that sings to the American dream means the dirt just won’t stick.

We’re seeing the opposite for Bernie Sanders. During a serious interview with the New York Times, Bernie was asked about his and Hilary Clinton’s hair, and while Trump can get on TV by taking a dig at his opponent’s wife, Sanders gets cut off when making important political speeches. The joke doing the rounds on the late night comedy circuit is that Trump’s furniture gets more coverage than the Sanders campaign.

And here’s where we’re at right now

On the Republican side, normally anyone with Trump’s record form Iowa onwards would be a dead cert for nomination, but Trump has the highest “unfavourability” rating for any candidate in any party – he repels more people than he attracts, including Republicans. In Wisconsin a poll revealed nearly 40% of republican voters would abandon the party if Trump were the candidate. There’s still a long way to go, but the Republican race is only going to get messier.

For the Democrats it’s a little clearer – for Sanders to have a chance he needs to bridge the 250 “normal” delegate gap with Clinton – and he is closing in. If he sweeps to more victories, he may just be able to win despite the superdelegates being against him. Otherwise the party establishment will need convincing that he’s the best person for the job.

What happens after the conventions then?

Then comes the actual election, Super PACs, electoral colleges and all on 8 November. Check back for our “Idiot’s Guide to the U.S. Election” closer to the time for more on that one…

Expert advice from Professor Inderjeet Parmar, City University London. You can follow him on Twitter here

Illustration by Charlotte Edey, you can follow her on Twitter here