The USA Presidential Election 2016, Explained

A month ago, I wrote a post called ‘An Angry American Election’, where I covered the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Looking back at it, I feel that the post was quite heavy going, and people who aren’t familiar with the subject wouldn’t find it very easy to understand.

Because of this, I’ve decided to start a new series on this blog called ‘explainers’ where I explain some topics in a more easy and concise way. And so, here is my first explainer, and it is on the 2016 US presidential election.

Last updated: December 22nd, 2015

The System

How does the American presidential election system work?

For many of us who live outside the United States, we’re used to a parliamentary system where the citizens elect members of parliament who then proceed to elect the prime minister from amongst themselves. However, although the United States have elections for representatives and senators, they hold a separate one for the president.

In the United States, politicians who wish to run for president will first announce their candidacy to their political party (or alternately, could choose to run as an independent and not be affiliated with a party at all). They all want to be nominated to become the party’s representative at the elections.  Many parties will have numerous candidates, and so they will go through a series of primaries and caucuses that are held in each individual state. In a primary, the registered voters select a representative for the general election, while in a caucus, discussions and meetings also occur between the party members in addition to voting. During this time, the so-called ‘invisible primary‘ also occurs when the candidates try to gain endorsements from other politicians, get media coverage and raise a lot of funds.

Once the primaries and caucuses are over, each party holds a national convention where they get all the delegates (representatives) of the party from each state to meet up. Some delegates are ‘bound’ by the results of the vote in their primary/caucus, but other delegates are free to choose whomever they want, although many will still be influenced by the primary’s result. The delegates will vote for the party’s representative in the general election, and the winner will also select the vice president to run in the same ticket as them.

Finally, we reach the stage of the general election, where the representatives of all the parties come together to compete for the vote. The United States uses a system known as the ‘Electoral College’, where each state has been allotted a number of electoral votes. The candidate that ends up with the most electoral votes on election day becomes president of the United States.

What are the major parties? 

There are many political parties in the United States, but in practice only two really matter: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

The Democratic Party are left-leaning; they are in general more liberal and progressive. They believe that the government has a large role to play in the lives of citizens. As an example of their beliefs, they are pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-same sex marriage. The current president, Barack Obama, is a Democrat, and his signature achievement is Obamacare (healthcare).

The Republican Party are right-leaning; they are in general more conservative and traditional. They believe that the government’s role in the lives of citizens should be as minimal as possible. As an example of their believes, they are anti-abortion, anti-gun control, and anti-same sex marriage. The previous president, George W. Bush, was a Republican.

What stage of the process are we currently in? 

The primaries and caucuses haven’t yet began for the 2016 race. The first caucus in Iowa will be held on February 1st, while the New Hampshire primary will be held on February 9th. Typically, these early primaries and caucuses have had an important role to play; they help to give the winners momentum heading into other primaries and caucuses. Others may also benefit; sometimes, an unexpected strong-showing for the runner-ups can also boost their standing, while dismal performances can cause a collapse in support.

The Candidates

This is what the race originally started with; many candidates however have dropped out.

Who are the Democratic candidates? 

There are only three Democratic candidates currently: former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, and former governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley.

Hillary Clinton- I’m a progressive who likes to get things done”

She should need no introduction; after all, she’s the former first lady and wife to Bill Clinton, who was president during the 1990s. Extremely experienced in government, she has been involved in politics since Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearings, and was Obama’s secretary of state (that’s foreign minister for the rest of us). However, the key issue that she has is that many people perceive of her as untrustworthy, because she often ‘flip-flops’ on issues (i.e changing her stances depending on what would make her more popular). Her recent email scandal certainly did not help. Clinton’s key ideas are centred around “becoming the champion for everyday Americans”, despite her deep ties with Wall Street.

Bernie Sanders- I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires“.

 A self-described democratic socialist, he was the mayor of Burlington in Vermont before becoming Vermont’s representative and currently its senator. He has always ran as an independent (and he’s proud of it), but deciding that to run as an independent in a presidential race is rather pointless, he decided to join the Democrats. His key ideas are centred around the issue that inequality in America is on the rise, and it’s time to reverse that. His main problem is the fact that he’s chosen to attach the label of ‘democratic socialist’ to himself; the American public still don’t know what the term actually means. He enjoys saying that America needs to become more like Denmark (which was awkward when the Danish PM announced his country isn’t actually socialist).

State of the race

Currently Clinton is the clear frontrunner, leading Sanders by over thirty percent in many polls. However, Sanders himself has caught fire and become much more popular than even his own campaign anticipated, becoming especially popular amongst liberals, progressives and millennials. Currently, Sanders is tied with Clinton in New Hampshire, an early primary. O’Malley, on the other hand, is not gaining any traction whatsoever.


Who are the Republican candidates?

There are currently 14 candidates for the Republican nomination (a massive if dwindling field). They are: businessman Donald Trump, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Texas senator Ted Cruz, Florida senator Marco Rubio, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Ohio governor John Kasich, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, former New York governor George Pataki, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore.

Your eyes probably have become blurry while reading that recital of names, so I’ll only talk about four in detail.

Donald Trump- We will make America great again.”

As surprising as it sounds, he is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. A bombastic fire-breathing businessman, he is best known for his entertainment empire and The Apprentice. The key issue that he’s made the centrepiece of his campaign is illegal immigration, especially at the US’s southern border (notably ‘build a wall and make Mexico pay for it’), but he’s also announced positions on tax reform (notably ‘this is the greatest tax plan ever’) and foreign policy (notably ‘I told you to bomb the oil fields!’) Trump is currently strong in the two early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Jeb Bush- Restoring the right to rise in America.

He used to be the early frontrunner, but Trump has toppled him. The son and brother of presidents, he’s fundraised the most in this race so far and is touting his credentials as a successful governor of Florida as a major reason why he should be elected (no, it’s not just because he’s a Bush!) Married to a Mexican and a fluent speaker of Spanish, he’s quite moderate on immigration, and he’s attempting to paint himself as the ‘serious’ candidate in an election that’s being dominated by as colourful a character as Donald Trump. He’s also supported by the Republican establishment. As a sinking candidate, Bush is banking on a successful showing in New Hampshire to rescue his fortune.

Two first-term senators, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, deserve a mention. With the fall of Jeb Bush, Rubio, also from Florida, is trying to gain establishment support, and the young senator is painting himself as a path towards the future for the party. Ted Cruz, on the other hand, is hated by most of the Republican party for his crazy antics in the senate (eg. disobeying elder Republicans), but following the collapse of neurosurgeon Ben Carson, he has been gaining rapidly in the polls by consolidating the evangelical Christian support.

State of the race

Currently Trump is the national frontrunner, although some polls have him tied to Ted Cruz in Iowa, an important early caucus. However, the picture of support right now may not be accurate. With so many candidates, a lot of support is being divided up, but once more candidates drop out, a clear alternative to Trump may emerge.


The Issues

One thing that’s very interesting about this election is how out of sync with each other the Democrats and Republicans seem to be. If you listen to the Democratic and Republican debates, they seem like they’re in a different world. For the Democrats, the main issues are rising inequality, climate change, gun control and campaign finance. The Republicans, on the other hand, tend to focus much more on illegal immigration, national security and foreign policy. The Republicans do not, generally, believe in climate change despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, while the Democrats tend to say things like “We’re exactly where we need to be right now” (see: Hillary) before proceeding to bash the current state of the economy. Both parties however have discussed at length the issue of terrorism.

Let’s go into more depth on some issues:

Inequality: Bernie Sanders on the stump has shown his outrage at the fact that the top 0.1% own nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90%. This has led the Democrats to talk a lot about resolving this inequality.

Climate change: the Republicans don’t believe in it, but the Democrats do. The Democrats believe that they have to invest in green energy to save the planet, but the Republicans believe that oil and coal is still the way to go. (“Climate change? We need that in New York!” was a Trump quip).

Gun control: with the amount of mass shootings happening, the Democrats believe that gun control has to be increased. The Republicans, however, think that more guns are needed and instead they should investing in mental healthcare.

Illegal immigration: Donald Trump is the most radical on this issue, saying that he will build a wall across the southern border to prevent illegal immigration but also have a ‘beautiful door’ open for legal immigration. The Democrats (and many other Republicans) think this is ridiculous.

Campaign finance: you can read more about super-PACs in the next section, but some believe that money has been flooding into politics and this needs to stop. Sanders has made it a point not to have a super-PAC, and Trump is also self-financing his campaign (disregarding donations of course). Harvard professor Larry Lessig tried to become the first ‘referendum president’ by repealing Citizens United on the first day of his presidency before resigning for his vice president, but after the Democrats refused to let him on the debate stage he dropped out.

ISIS: this issue keeps coming up because of ongoing terrorism. As mentioned previously, some candidates advocate more bombing (i.e Ted Cruz, who wants to see sand glow) while others believe that this should be left up to regional actors (such as Sanders). Trump has the most unique foreign policy so far, with his embrace of Vladimir Putin.

Other Things to Know

Anything strange about this election?

Yes. People seem to be rejecting what they call ‘establishment candidates’- people who have ties to Washington, or the elites of the party. Americans are fed up with what they think is a broken political system, and by supporting outsiders, such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, they’re showing that discontent. My post, An Angry American Election, goes into more detail about this.

What are super-PACs? 

In a ruling by the Supreme Court known as ‘Citizens United’, the US essentially recognised that money has a role to play in politics; it’s a way of expressing yourself. Therefore, they’re now allowing corporations to make unlimited donations to political groups known as super-PACs; this is different from regular PACs as those can only accept individual donations, with an annual limit at $5000. This has allowed many candidates to fundraise so much, and are allowing them to sustain their campaigns for much longer than historically possible.

How will demographics come into play?

Put simply, the number of white people in the US is declining, while the number of other minorities (eg. African-Americans and Hispanics) are rising. The Republican base tend to come from conservative, older white people, while most African-Americans and hispanics are voting Democratic. Currently, Hillary has been trying hard to court the Hispanic vote, and might possibly go as far as selecting Julian Castro, a member of Obama’s cabinet, as her vice presidential pick. On the other hand, despite an early effort at trying to court Hispanics (see: Jeb Bush speaking Spanish), Trump’s blatant racism is not going down well with the Hispanic community. As white voters decline, however, this could pose huge problems for the Republican party in 2016.

Hispanic protestors are a Trump rally.

Who’s going to win?

It’s still way too early to tell. If the national conventions were held tomorrow, it would be likely that Donald Trump would emerge as the Republican Party’s nominee, while Hillary Clinton would be the standard-bearer for the Democrats. Most polls would point to Hillary winning such a matchup. But without any of the primaries or caucuses even starting yet, it’s pointless to speculate. We can start going into more speculation once the primaries and caucuses actually start.

What are some memorable quotes from the campaigns? 

“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. In my opinion, she was off base.” – Trump on Meghyn Kelly

“Look at the face!” – Trump on Carly Fiornia

“Hillary got schlonged by Obama in 2008.” – Trump on Clinton’s 2008 run

“You can’t insult your way to the presidency.” – Jeb Bush to Trump

“Donald Trump is a jerk.” -Jeb Bush on Trump, after saying he can’t insult his way to the presidency

“What, like with a cloth or something?” – Clinton when asked if she wiped her email server

“Joseph built the pyramids to store grain.” – Ben Carson on why the pyramids were built

“I will carpet-bomb them into oblivion.” – Ted Cruz on ISIS

“[Bernie Sanders] went on a honeymoon to the Soviet Union, and he probably never came back.” – Lindsey Graham on Bernie Sanders

More reading

Who’s Running for President? (New York Times)

How Demographics Will Shape the 2016 Election (FiveThirtyEight) 

Can Trump win the general election?

I hope that with this, you can better understand the American election. As it heats up, I may write more posts about this topic, and I’ll continually refer back to this post and try to refer to it as a background. Thanks for reading!










One response to “The USA Presidential Election 2016, Explained”

  1. […] experimentation and change. For this reason, I’ve begun to do other post formats recently, beginning with the ‘explainer’ type of post that I did for the American elections.  I’m particularly excited about doing more explainers this year, and I can imagine a lot of […]

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