US election circus about to end

6 November 2016


This election tragic from Australia had to “venture out” to the broader world sooner or later.  And now the time to do has come, with a presidential election to take place in the United States of America in this coming week.

You probably don’t need reminding of what this coming US election might be like.  It’s a battle between two major parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, both with candidates considered unpopular.  This election will see a new person become President, be it established politician Hillary Clinton of the Democrats or larger-than-life businessman Donald Trump of the Republicans.

Clinton and Trump seek to replace Barack Obama, a Democrat, who was elected President in 2008, won a second term in 2012, and is retiring after serving two terms, the maximum allowed under American law since the 1950s.  Both candidates are controversial – Clinton is seen as very much a part of a political establishment now regarded with much dislike by Americans, and Trump is seen as a loudmouthed buffoon who offends all sorts of people.

But US election campaigns go well beyond elections themselves, which come every four years.  Right throughout an election year, if not before it, political parties have numerous people running to win support among rank-and-file members, and to be chosen as their candidate for the presidential election.  Candidates go all over America, with votes held in various states at various times, and during the year would-be candidates drop out, often due to a lack of popular support, as well as campaign funds.  These campaigns cost a fortune to undertake.  And they often see would-be candidates attacking each other, sometimes nastily, as has been happening among Republicans this year, with Trump rated a master of insults.  They seem very much like circuses, in a sense.

Although election campaigns everywhere have degrees of nastiness and even dishonesty about them, this US election circus has seen more negativity than many can remember, probably because the main contenders are widely disliked.  But at least with the election coming this week, the circus is arguably about to end.

However, the election itself isn’t as democratic to me as it might seem, even though Americans regard their country as the beacon of democracy worldwide.  In elections here you don’t need to win a majority of the nationwide vote, or even a majority of legislative seats, to win overall, like you do in other countries.  Instead, you have to win a majority of votes in a body known as the “electoral college”.  This is where things get undemocratic.

Unlike in Australia, people in America only vote for the one candidate of their choice, and amid a field of several candidates, the winner just needs more votes than any other candidate – not strictly more than every other candidate put together.  This arrangement can be called “first past the post”.

If you’re first past the post, it doesn’t matter whether you beat your rivals by a big margin or a small margin.  To illustrate this point, I’ll use numbers as “scores”, to represent percentages of the vote, rounded to the nearest whole number.

In America, it doesn’t matter if, for argument’s sake, you win 35-30 or 75-20 over your nearest rival, with the rest of the vote split among your other rivals.  Your objective is to win states, which have groups of votes in the electoral college.  States with big populations have more electoral college votes than those with small populations.  And this is where things become undemocratic.

In a big state you might win 35-30 over your nearest rival, who might win 75-20 over you in a small state nearby.  But the size of the states would give you more electoral college votes than your rival, despite fewer actual votes across both states.

There are 538 votes in the electoral college, spread across 50 states and a territory housing the national capital Washington, and you need 270 votes to win.  The biggest state is California, with 55 votes.  Following are Texas with 38, Florida and New York with 29 each, Illinois and Pennsylvania with 20, Ohio with 18, Georgia and Michigan with 16, North Carolina with 15, and New Jersey with 14.  These states together – numbering less than a dozen in all and making up less than a quarter of all states – will win you 270 votes, and thus an election, if you merely finish first in them, even with a narrow 35-30 win in each state, in which case it doesn’t matter if your nearest rival beats you 75-20 everywhere else.  In my opinion, this makes US elections rather undemocratic.

That aside, I’m tipping Clinton to win in a close contest.  At the last election, in 2012, the Democrats won 332 electoral college votes to 206.  Clinton can lose a few states, and thus groups of votes, without losing the election.  Trump needs to win several large states to close up on Clinton, and I can’t see him winning them.

Judging by various opinion polls, I see only three states changing hands.  I tip Trump to gain small Iowa and big Ohio from Clinton, but I tip him to lose big North Carolina.  And Clinton should hold battleground states like Florida, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.

The circus in the US will end with Clinton becoming President.  The long road will end to the relief of so many.



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