Friday, January 11th, 2008...12:20 am

Politics 101

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In one of my first posts on this blog I wrote about how I was looking forward to following the 2008 Presidential race and exercising my right to vote. I have indeed been keeping a close eye on many of the developments, and find myself watching many of the presidential debates and following the news shows instead of Sportscenter.

I think there’s a good chance that I will begin to blog more often about political issues and the presidential race. I am still “playing the field” and trying to learn more about all of the candidates in both the Democratic and Republican parties. One of the things that peeve me about politics is how everybody (media, politicians, friends) seems to have a partisan allegiance and blindly pushes the agenda of their party or candidate. Maybe that is how politics works and if so I would like to see that change.

In the course of this political discourse I may very well choose to back a certain candidate. What I hope for is that you also determine which candidate you truly support. If my posts, thoughts or ideas help you come to a conclusion then I will be thrilled.

Below is a note from someone who is way more knowledgeable and informed on both the American political process and the events of this presidential race. It was passed on to me by a friend and does a wonderful job explaining what is happening in our country right now. I was surprised by both how much I already knew and how much I have to learn. The first section is somewhat of a history lesson but then it moves into a great synopsis of each of the candidates and where they currently stand.


I will discuss the status of the races for the Democratic and Republican nominations later. First, I will explain the origins and meaning of the primaries.

Until the 20th century, the candidates for the parties were basically chosen by the party leaders in the states. They would bargain and try to decide on the strongest candidates. The exception was George Washington, who was picked as the first President because the leadership of the new country agreed he was the ONLY right person to lead the nation under the new Constitutional system adopted in 1787-88. He was President for two terms, running without opposition. But after that, starting in 1800, the candidates were chosen by the party leaders, and starting in 1840, usually chosen at meetings called Conventions. The Conventions still exist, but normally the candidates are known well in advance of the Conventions, and that is because of the modern primary system existing in the past half-century.

A primary is an election in which the registered members of the party get to vote for whom they think should be the party’s nominee. (A few states also let “independents”, that is, people who are not registered in either party, vote in either party’s primary–New Hampshire and Michigan do that.But very few do that. And a few states, like Iowa, have “caucuses,” where people actually meet together and debate and then vote –but that is by far the exception. )

Primaries exist today in most states to pick not just Presidential candidates , but generally to nominate ALL candidates, both federal (President, US Senate, US House of Representatives ) and state candidates (Governor, State Senate , State House of Representatives and, in SOME states, judge nominees). The exception is that the Presidential candidates choose the Vice Presidential candidates they want to run with, but that still has to be approved at the Conventions,. The Conventions vote for the presidential candidates, too, but they vote according to the results of the primary elections, so that result is already known when the Conventions meet in the summer of the election year, as long as someone has won a majority of the Convention “delegates”–discussed later. The party that does not hold the Presidency (this time, the Democrats ) meets first in their Convention , generally in mid-late July, and the party holding the Presidency (this year, the Republicans) meets second, in August.

As I said, until the 20th century (the 1900s), there were no primary elections, and the people as a whole had no opportunity to decide who would be nominated to run for President or the other offices. By the early 1900s, however, there had developed a political movement called the Progressive movement. The progressives were reformers who wanted the system to be more democratic–small “d”–not in terms of the Democratic party but in terms of DEMOCRACY. That is, they wanted the people to have more of a choice in picking the candidates. They also were in favor of other reforms of the political process to give more power to the individual voters.

The progressives were both Democrats and Republicans. Most did not join the “Progressive party’” which existed only for a few years in the early 1900s, but the progressive movement achieved various political goals in reforming the system, notably to start the primary election system, so the people, not just the political leaders, picked the candidates.

In 1912, the Republicans had five primaries–not enough by a long shot to pick the nominee. That election is famous for various reasons that I will spare you–suffice it to say that the winner of the Republican primaries did not get enough power out of that success to be nominated,and he wasn’t .

Anyway, the primary system grew slowly. As late as 1956, the winner of most of the Democratic primaries (there still were not many primaries) was denied the nomination by the party leaders at the Convention. Not until 1960 did it really make a difference, when John F Kennedy won all of the primaries,enabling him to win the Democratic nomination for President–but there still were not that many primaries and he won the nomination narrowly. (I recall listening to the Convention vote while in camp that summer, and I remember he won only when they reached the state of Wyoming in the voting–they did the Convention voting alphabetically. ) After 1960, the primaries grew in number and have been crucial to nominations for President. Almost never have the nominations NOT been known well in advance of the Conventions since then, because someone usually wins a lot of primaries and sort of “snowballs ‘ into the nomination.It takes so much money now to run for President that a candidate cannot lose the first three or four or so primaries (sometime even fewer–some candidates drop out after one or two–) and still continue in the race.

In sum, today, the process of getting nominated is based on running in the primaries of your party , and doing a lot of advertising on TV and radio and a lot of in-person speaking and meeting voters and debating on TV with the other candidates and building an organization of volunteers who will send out mailings and work the internet and visit and call thousands and thousands of people –over and over and over –on the phone. and raising huge sums of money. I need to explain what you “win” when you win votes in a primary–I will do that in a bit. (That’s the discussion of Convention “delegates.”)

Unlike most years since 1960, this year could be a situation in which the nominations will NOT be decided after just a few primaries with most candidates just dropping out after that. This year, there is a good chance that three candidates on both sides– Obama, Clinton and Edwards for the Dems and McCain, Huckabee and Romney for the Republicans, as well as former NY Mayor Giuliani for the Republicans (maybe) –will stay in the race a long time.

So far, no one has broken out as the clear leader, which of course means the candidates all have incentive to keep spending money and campaigning. Because so many primaries are on Feb 5 and because almost virtually every big state will have voted on or by that night, it is assumed that we will know a lot by then, but of course if various candidates win various primaries, we could still have a close race–only if one candidate wins most of the big state primaries will that candidate be well ahead.

What is won in the primary(or caucus) is called “delegates”. That means genially that you win votes in the Convention (you win delegates who attend the Convention) according to your percentage of the vote you get in the primary. It is usually NOT “winner take all.” Example: Hillary Clinton won about 39 per cent in New Hampshire last night, so she will get 39 per cent of New Hampshire’s delegates at the Democratic Convention this July; Obama got 36 per cent, so he will have 36 per cent of the NH delegates, Edwards won 17 per cent, so he will have 17 per cent of the delegates, and so on. The key is that the bigger the state (in population), the MORE delegates it is allowed to send to the Convention. Thus, New York and California and Texas and Florida and Illinois send far more delegates to the Conventions than small populated states like Wyoming and New Hampshire and Rhode Island and the Dakotas. Example: Winning 39 per cent of the New Hampshire vote may mean you get 3 delegates– I am estimating here–but winning 39 per cent of the California vote in the primary may mean you get 40 or 50 or 60 delegates. ( Sometimes winning the vote gets you a couple of extra delegates, and the Republicans also increase the delegates for a state a little if the state voted for the Republican presidential candidate in the last election–the Democrats do not do that.)

Therefore, winning a lot of votes in a big state’s primary is worth a lot more (in Convention delegates) than winning a lot of votes in the primary of a small state.

BIG DIFFERENCE– in almost every state, in the general election in November, between the people who ARE nominated in the summer Conventions, the winner of the popular (citizens’) vote in a state gets ALL of the states “electoral votes”. There are just a couple of exceptions –Nebraska and Maine, I think. ( Electoral votes are like delegates, but are the people –the “electors”–who vote later in the “Electoral College”which technically elects the President and Vice President, after the November results are tallied, based on the electoral votes won in November ). As I said, this “winner take all” system in the general election is different from the primaries, in which the winner gets close to her or his percentage of the delegates based on her or his percentage of the votes.

As you can see, in the general election in November, winning a state like California gives you many, many times more “electoral votes” than winning New Hampshire. (To win the Presidency in November, the candidate needs a majority of the electoral votes– so winning a BIG state by a few hundred citizens’ votes–the “popular votes” — is worth a lot more than winning a SMALL state by a million popular votes. Example: Gore beat Bush by a bit over 500,000 popular votes in the general election in 2000, but Gore LOST the election because Bush won more electoral votes. Had Gore won Florida,which he lost by 537 votes to Bush out of millions of votes cast in Florida, he would have won Florida’s electoral vote and he would have won the election. So, he won the “popular(citizens’) vote nationally by a lot, but lost Florida by a hair , which cost him the election. (Some people think this system is not fair, and I will not go into that now–the Founders of the country devised it in the Constitution in part to give small states more of a say in the elections, because without it everyone would pay no attention to them, or at least that is the theory. )

Today, the people vote in primaries usually to pick the nominees , but that system has been significant for less than fifty years. Moreover, there is still the problem that the early primaries have a disproportionate influence because the candidates have to spend a lot of extra time and money there–you don’t want to start off by losing three or four of them because people like to go with a winner, and because the press will focus on the winners, and people who give money and work for candidates tend to give less to and work less for candidates they think are losers.

So far, Barack Obama, a relatively new( almost three years) US Senator from Illinois, a mixed race person (Kansas mother and Kenyan father), a brilliant ex-law professor , state legislator and great speaker, won in Iowa at the “caucuses” and finished a close second in NH last night.

John Edwards, a former US Senator, a wealthy lawyer and the losing Vice Presidential candidate with Kerry in 2004. finished second in Iowa and third (a weak third) in NH. His wife, also a lawyer, has incurable cancer but she is campaigning with him–a very poignant story.

Former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton , a US Senator from NY since 2001, is an enormously accomplished , intelligent woman , with a long record of achievements. She won an upset victory over Obama last night in New Hampshire after coming in a close third in Iowa. Former President Bill Clinton is campaigning with her. Both she and Sen.Obama have a lot of money to spend and good organizations across the country.

Bill Richardson, the other candidate, Governor of New Mexico, and ex- Cabinet member in the Bill Clinton Administration, is of partly Hispanic origin–an political advantage, perhaps–and is also a sound candidate –all the Dems are very good– but he has little money and little organization, and knows by now that his only hope is to be picked by the winner to run as the Vice-Pres.candidate. They are the only serious Democratic contenders at this point.

There is great excitement here; no woman and no African-American has ever been elected President or nominated for President by the Republicans or Democrats . And of course black men were not allowed to vote until after the Civil War, when the Constitution was amended in the 1860s –and no woman was allowed to vote –except in a very few small Western states– until 1920, when the Constitution was amended. ( It is astonishing for us to believe today that women were such second class citizens for that long, but it is nevertheless true. )

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses. He finished third in NH. He is a friendly Baptist Minister, ,and an ex -Governor of Arkansas. (By coincidence, he was born in the same little town in Arkansas –Hope–as former Arkansas Governor and former President Bill Clinton!) Huckabee is the candidate of the so called “Christian Conservatives” or the “Christian right ” (meaning “right wing” politics–conservatives,mostly who are Republicans, are ‘right wing’ and liberals–like most or many Democrats–are ‘left wing”. )Christian conservatives form a large part of the Republican vote (maybe 40 per cent or even more) , and are generally evangelical Protestants, who are opposed to abortion rights, stem cell research, and gay rights, and who favor more religion in public life. The Founding Fathers made sure in the Constitution that government and religion were separate– the Constitution states in the “First Amendment “(which also concerns free speech and freedom of the press) that there will be no state required single religion in the USA and that everyone is free to believe (and , by implication, not to believe) what they want. The Founders knew that religion always seemed to play a destructive role when the government came under the control of one religion–and you can see that now,as religious fundamentalism and fanaticism is the root cause of the major foreign policy problem we face today in the world , especially in the Middle East.

Mitt Romney was Mass. governor and was a Moderate (middle of the road) leader who has changed his views now to try to get the conservative Republicans to vote for him as the nominee. He is very smart and a very successful businessman with enormous wealth(from investment banking), who also ran the Salt Lake City Olympic games successfully. He is a Mormon, which is a branch of Christianity, founded in the 1830s, and a lot of the Christian conservative Republicans are opposed to having a Mormon as President, even though a person’s religion ought to be irrelevant. Indeed, the Constitution says there is no religious test for office. Romney finished second in Iowa and NH and won the little Wyoming caucus , where he was more or less uncontested., (The Dems had no caucus there–they have only a primary, later. )He has a great campaign organization and will probably stay in the race a long time, unless he is badly beaten on Feb 5. He was born in Michigan, where his dad was Governor in the ’60s , and he “needs” to win there on Jan 15. But john McCain (below)is popular there. I think Romney will stay in the race even if he loses in Michigan, but it would be a big setback for him.

John McCain is old (71) and is a Vietnam war hero. (He endured five years of torture in North Vietnam prisons and refused to be released because they would not release his fellow prisoners–they were offering to release him because his father was an Admiral who was in charge of the US Pacific fleet at the time.) He is a long-time US Senator for many years from Arizona. He is known for being honest and speaking his mind, and is a somewhat moderate Republican candidates. He is not well liked by the Christian conservatives because of his middle of the road stance on illegal immigration and his efforts to reform the campaign finance system . Like the Democrats, he is very good on “global warming’, an enormous problem that , like President Bush, most Republican candidates refuse to take very seriously–but McCain does take it seriously,as do the Democrats. (Everybody needs to take it even more seriously. )

Former NY Mayor Giuliani is also moderate , and is the closest to the Democrats on the “social issues”–abortion , stem cell research, gay rights– which makes him unpopular with the majority of Republicans, His whole campaign is based on his becoming a hero with the way he performed in NY for Mayor for the last three and a half months of his tenure as Mayor after the 9-11 attacks. He has taken the risk of not campaigning particularly hard the early primaries, where he knew he would not fare well, and he hopes to make a big showing in Florida on Jan 26 and then in the big states on Feb 5.

Ex-Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee –who played the DA on “Law and Order “after leaving the Senate—-was thought to be a formidable candidate, but I think he is going nowhere. His conservatism appeals to many Republicans but he has excited almost no one and Huckabee has supplanted him , I think.

All in all, this is the most fascinating race in the primaries since 1976, and actually it looks like it will be more exciting than that. It is more exciting than 1988 , another good year, and may be the most exciting race in the primaries since the Democratic race in 1972 and the Republican race in 1964. Hence, it might be the most exciting primary race EVER–especially as (unlike 1964 and 1972) BOTH parties have close and uncertain races.