2008 American presidential election will be historic for two major reasons. For the first time since 1928 none of the incumbents (President and Vice President) are in the fray. For the first time ever there is a distinct possibility that a woman or a black would go on to win the presidency.
The Early States
USA has a rigid two party system with hardly any room for a third party candidate. Once in a while a Ross Perot or a Ralph Nader might come along to gain a little traction but mostly it is either the Democratic party or the Republican. To win the nomination of either party is a long, grueling and exceedingly complex process. Each of the 50 states hold primaries and caucuses according to a fixed schedule decided by the constitution of each party. Every state awards delegates to winners of the primary or caucus. Republicans have a winner-take-all rule for most of the states while Democrats usually award delegates in proportion to the vote share won in the state. Some states decide voting share at the district level and some decide on the state level. Sometimes one can win more votes but win less delegates. Some states allow everyone to vote for either party, some states allow only registered Republican/Democrat voters for vote for respective elections while some states allow Republican/Democrat voters and Independents. One needs to win 2,025 delegates to win the Democratic party nomination and 1,191 for the Republicans. Apart from the delegates that are won in these primaries and caucuses, there are super-delegates who are members of either Congress/Senate or party officials and they are free to endorse a candidate of their choice (or not).
By respective party constitutions, Iowa gets to hold its caucus first and New Hampshire, the first primary. This distinction gives these two states a lot of advantage over other states and these two early contests are make or break for many candidates. From Democrats, two candidates dropped out after Iowa caucus on 3rd January 2008 and one after the New Hampshire primary on 8th January 2008. On the positive side, it threw up two unexpected winners, Barack Obama (Democrat) and Mike Huckabee (Republican) and gave a big impetus to their campaigns. Hillary Clinton (Democrat) and John McCain (Republican) won New Hampshire after 5 days of Iowa caucus to resurrect their flailing campaigns.
The Florida Effect
Several states tried to move their primaries/caucuses earlier in the year to acquire a bigger say in the whole process. Usually the nominee is decided after elections in the first few states and the remaining states feel let down. Florida state Democratic and Republican parties moved their primary up in the calendar violating the guidelines of the party constitutions. Michigan followed suit. As a result Democratic National Party (DNC) stripped both these states of their allocated delegates and Republican Party cut the number into half.
Since none of the incumbents is seeking election this year, both parties started with a packed field of candidates but after the South Carolina primary (26th January 2008), only three were left on the Democratic side (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards) and five on the Republican (John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul & Rudy Giuliani).
Florida was key to the plans of Rudy Giuliani who came to be known as America’s Mayor because of his inspirational leadership at the helm of New York City after 911. Giuliani was running on his record as New York’s mayor before and after 911 and built his entire candidacy around it. He has a great name recognition across USA and even claimed that he is one of the five most known Americans worldwide. He was leading in all national polls and the media had but anointed him the Republican nominee. Giuliani was following a different strategy than everybody else by focusing only on Florida (with its 57 delegate count) in a winner take all primary. He was banking on the support of millions of retired New Yorkers now living in Florida. Consequently, he ignored Iowa, didn’t put his heart in New Hampshire or a fight in South Carolina. The result was that for a nation interested in the early states and media exclusively covering those, his candidacy slowly lost wind. He didn’t get coverage when people were paying attention and his really poor performance in the early states didn’t help either. Florida voters shattered his dream by placing him third with just 15% of the votes. He withdrew soon after endorsing his friend and Florida winner, John McCain.
For the Democrats, the Florida primary was a “beauty contest” as no delegates were to be won. Candidates also pledged not to campaign in the state. However, the primary was still organized for Democratic voters and John Edwards placed third with about 14% of the votes. Having failed to win any state, Edwards decided to drop out of the race. He was the running mate of John Kerry in 2004 and voted for the Iraq war when he was the North Carolina senator in 2003 . He had since repudiated his vote and apologized for it. He ran on a populist platform for 2008 as he did in 2004 but with a much sharper edge in his message. He made poverty in America as his central theme and started his campaign from the Katrina-devastated neighborhood of New Orleans. Edwards tried hard to keep up with the historical candidacies of Hillary and Barack but withdrew after Florida so that “history can blaze its path”. He was hampered by lack of resources to compete on 5th February 2008, also billed by pollsters as Super Tuesday and Tsunami Tuesday. It was the first free day available to states according to party rules to hold their primaries and 22 states decided to do so.
With, Edwards gone, the Democratic party nomination is now a direct fight between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Hussein Obama. Hillary, obviously, is the wife of much beloved (and sometimes despised) former president Bill Clinton. She has been a senator from New York for over 7 years now, first lady of USA for 8 years and the first lady of the state of Arkansas for 12 years. Add these years up with her experience as a lawyer and other high-profile appointments, she has a lot of experience. No wonder experience has been her main theme for winning the nomination and ‘ready on day one’ her slogan. She has so far won New Hampshire and Nevada apart from Michigan and Florida which don’t count for anything.
She is being challenged by Barack Obama, a brilliant and charismatic first-term senator from Illinois. Barack might not have Clinton’s legacy but has a great story to sell. Born of a Kenyan father who came to USA to study and Kansasian mother, Barack’s parents separated when he was two. Barack’s father went back to Kenya and died there in 1982. Barack’s mother then married an Indonesian citizen and he lived with his new family in Jakarta for a few years. He then returned to USA and stayed with his maternal grand-parents. He went on to study at Ivy League colleges (Columbia and Harvard) and was the first black editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. Later on in his life, he worked as a community organizer in Chicago, fought state senate elections and served as a senator in Illinois for 8 years. He fought for the Democratic party nomination for the US Senate and after winning the nomination, defeated his Republican rival by a huge margin in 2004. Barack was chosen to speak at the DNC National Convention in 2004 and his inspiration speech brought him to attention to many Americans. His candidacy is based on hope and change. He enjoys rockstar popularity and is attracting huge crowds to his rallies comprising a lot of young voters who long for a change.
In the Republican party, it is a three-way with John McCain leading the delegate count, followed by Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. McCain is a war hero, served in Vietnam, was captured and tortured by his captives for over five years and was finally freed in 1973. He has a great pedigree with his father and grand-father serving in navy and retiring as admirals. He has been serving as the US Senator from Arizona since 1986 and was a candidate for Republican nomination against George W Bush in 2000 elections. However, after a tough battle in several early states and stiff opposition by Christian conservatives, he lost out to Bush. He campaigned whole-heartedly for Bush’s re-election in 2004 and was considered a front-runner for Republican nomination for 2008 elections since beginning. However, his campaign seemed to lose steam mid-way with financial difficulties looming and Giuliani leading national polls. He made a spectacular come-back in New Hampshire primary and is now widely expected to win the Republication nomination. He was a major supporter of the Iraq war and the recent surge and his campaign is touting the reduction in violence in Iraq as one of his achievements.
McCain is being challenged by Mitt Romney who is a millionaire businesman and professes Mormonism, a Christian sect with majority presence in Utah and significant population in some other states. He is a former Republican governor of Massachusetts but has limited acceptance among typical Republican voters. Romney built his candidacy around winning early states (Iowa and New Hampshire) and carrying that momentum to other states. However, he lost both the states but went on to win Wyoming, Michigan and Maine to keep him in the fray. Another contender is Mike Huckabee who won Iowa but has been unable to win any other state since then. He is also a former governor of Arkansas and was a Baptist pastor before holding that position. He is a powerful orator and brings folksy humor in his speeches. Texas congressman Ron Paul is also in fray but his candidacy, though based on principles, is unlikely to be a success. He has libertarians views and his message of liberty and individual freedom has found huge support from youngsters. He voted against the Iraq war in 2003 and favors immediate troop withdrawal which is against the general opinion of the Republican party.
Impending Super Tuesday
With just one day remaining before voting starts for the 22 states on 5th February 2008, candidates are making frantic push to get their message across as many voters as possible. Some of the states voting on Tuesday include California, New York, Illinois, Arizona, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Kansas and Utah, with each one important to different candidates for different reasons.
Obama raised $ 32 million in January alone and is using that money to buy TV ads in these states as he is still not as well known as Hillary. Hillary is going all out with her experience theme. McCain is riding high on his victory in Florida and endorsement from Giuliani. Romney needs to win some key states to stay in the fray. Huckabee is going after the southern Christian voters. We are in for an interesting day but it is highly unlikely that the battle for nomination will be over in either of the parties on Super Tuesday.