Does America need to change how it elects its presidents?

  • 28 January 2016
  • From the section US & Canada
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Audience member Robin Roy reacts as Donald Trump greets her at a campaign rally in Lowell, 4 January 2016 Image copyright Reuters

Is there a greater democratic show on earth than the American presidential election?

Indian polls, where elephants ferry electronic voting machines into the foothills of the Himalayas and pyrotechnics explode at the moment of victory, are doubtless more picturesque.

Afghan votes, where women queue at polling stations dressed in sky-blue burkas, and warlords darken the process with their guns and menace, are more epic.

British by-elections, with their monster raving loonies and candidates dressed as chickens, take the prize for slapstick.

Yet for sheer entertainment value it is hard to beat the "Road to the White House", as it zigzags through the cornfields of Iowa, the snowfields of New Hampshire and so very many airfields that one becomes indistinguishable from another.

Surely no other country can rival this electoral blockbuster.


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Like many good dramas, it is episodic: the Iowa caucus; the New Hampshire primary; Super Tuesday; the conventions; the presidential debates; then, finally, the denouement of election night.

Like every good soap opera, it can produce cliffhanger after cliffhanger, as in 2008 when Barack Obama locked antlers with Hillary Clinton.

Like all good theatre, it brings together a compelling repertory company. Some characters, like the telegenic Marco Rubio, feel like they have stepped straight from central casting.

Others, like Donald Trump, are scene-stealers. And some, like Ben Carson, look like they have stumbled in from a neighbouring film lot, and ended up in the wrong production altogether. And then there are those delightful guest appearances: step forward Sarah Palin.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Donald Trump: A master scene-stealer?
Image copyright AP
Image caption Ben Carson: An up-and-down campaign

Presidential elections are box office. Just ask the cable news channels, which are attracting record audiences for the presidential debates, staged with the mandatory red, white and blue backdrops and rousing music, usually with a martial drumbeat, that would not sound out of place as the soundtrack for Top Gun.

On Facebook, the race was the most talked about subject globally in 2015.

With a new instalment every four years, presidential elections have not only become an exercise in the franchise, but an exercise in franchising.

The problem is that the greatest democratic show on earth also doubles as the most outlandish.

For international onlookers, it can seem freakish and bizarre: a long-running farce populated by cartoonish characters, which works as entertainment but is a poor advertisement for American democracy.

Though presidential elections easily satisfy most theatrical requirements, do they meet the needs of a well-functioning democracy?

Regardless of the cast, the process itself is easy to lampoon.

The race begins in Iowa and New Hampshire, two relatively small states that end up having a wholly disproportionate impact on the outcome.

There is an argument to be made that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire take very seriously their civic responsibility, and closely scrutinise each of the presidential candidates.

The electors there usefully winnow the field. But both states are 94% white, compared with the national figure of 77%, and could hardly be described as ethnically representative of the country as a whole. Quite the contrary.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama memorably locked horns during the 2008 campaign

As well as its geographical quirks, there is the duration of the contest.

Modern-day campaigns have become almost two-year marathons.

Ted Cruz, the first candidate to declare his candidacy, announced his intentions on 23 March 2015.

Because campaigns have become so elongated, money has become even more important.

Campaign finance merits a column all of its own. Suffice to say that the 2012 presidential election cost a record-breaking $2bn, and this year's race could cost $5bn, much of that money coming from Super-Pacs (political action committees), which can raise unlimited funds.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ted Cruz has been campaigning for almost a year

Come the general election proper, there are the vagaries of the Electoral College.

This state-focused system has thrice produced presidents who failed to win the nationwide popular vote - in 1876, 1888 and most recently in 2000, when Al Gore received 543,895 more votes than George W Bush.

Nor is that the only foible of the Electoral College. Because more than 40 states are safely Republican or safely Democrat, presidential campaigning is concentrated on a small number of swing states, such as Ohio and Florida.

It means that candidates ignore some of the most populous states in the union, like California (Democrat), New York (Democrat) and Texas (Republican), and lavish attention on others.

This has a distortive effect on policy.

Part of the reason why the US embargo of Cuba remained in place for so long was because of the importance of Cuban American voters in Florida.

Likewise, it takes a brave presidential candidate to come out against ethanol subsidies, handouts dear to the farmers of Iowa.


Key upcoming dates in the presidential race:

1 February: Iowa caucus

8 February: New Hampshire primary

20 February: Nevada Democratic caucus, Washington Republican caucus, South Carolina Republican primary

1 March: Primaries in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, and possibly in Massachusetts and Vermont. Caucuses in Colorado, North Dakota (Republican only) and Wyoming (Republican only). Minnesota is also due to hold a caucus, but legislation to make it a primary is pending.


As with campaign finance, weighty books could be written on voter suppression, whether it comes in the form of impediments to registration, the purging of electoral rolls, photo ID laws that tend to penalise poorer voters, or the mismanagement of polling stations.

The underfunding of elections, especially in urban areas populated by minorities, often creates long queues and long waits, meaning that voters are disenfranchised for the simple reason they cannot cast their ballots before the deadline.

Nor is the act of voting uniform across the country, or even within states.

Just as registration methods differ from state to state, so, too, do voting methods.

This partly explains the confusion over those infamous "butterfly ballots" in Florida in 2000, which confused elderly voters. It was designed by a local official.

Chaotic spectacle

We, as journalists, play a part in the dysfunction of the process.

Covering this chaotic spectacle is always a guilty pleasure, and though we often set out with the noble aim of exploring the issues and of not being fixated by the headlines of the day, it is hard, if not impossible, to resist.

It explains why the US networks' evening news in 2015 devoted 327 minutes to Donald Trump, but just 57 to Jeb Bush, 57 to Ben Carson, 22 to Marco Rubio and 21 to Ted Cruz. It's a character-driven, rather than policy-driven, narrative.

Thus, we end up producing "horse race journalism," a poll-obsessed commentary preoccupied with who is up and who is down. Social media has exacerbated our worst tendencies.

We are part of a process in which sound bites double as policy statements, and slogans become substitutes for nuanced manifestos. And I am guilty as charged.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mario Cuomo decided against a run for the White House
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption And so did Colin Powell

No wonder the process is so off-putting to so many qualified candidates - Colin Powell is an example on the Republican side, the former Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, on the Democrat.

No wonder so many politicians simply cannot raise enough money to be viable (though some that do, like Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, also fail).

No wonder voter turnout is so low. In 2012, it was 53.6%. Not since 1968 has it risen above 60%. Of the 34 OECD countries, the US ranks 31st in voter turnout.

Perhaps this year's record-breaking viewing figures will translate into higher voter participation.

But at the moment the 2016 election feels like one of those instant tests of online opinion to decide who should stay on the island, rather than who should become the most powerful person on earth - a process with an excess of razzmatazz, and a deficit of reason.

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