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US Presidential Election: A Bumpy Road Ahead

21 March 2016

By Amir Taheri

Trump's progress does not guarantee victory

Tighten your belts; the US is heading for the bumpiest presidential election ride in decades. This was the key message that came out of the so-called ''Super Tuesday'' in which 12 states held primaries and one, Colorado, a caucus, to pick their nominees for the Democrat and Republican parties in next November's final showdown.

In both cases the front-runners, Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Donald Trump for the Republicans, did better than expected, each winning seven states. On the Democrat side, Senator Bernie Sanders, leading a left-wing insurgency in the party won four states, enough to keep him in the race for at least another round of primaries. On the Republican side, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, runner-up to Trump, captured three states with Senator Marco Rubio getting only one.

''Super Tuesday'' was important because it involved states from all ends of the country, from Alaska to Massachusetts passing by Texas. On the Republican side it allocated a quarter of the delegates to the convention that will pick the nominee next summer. On the Democrat side a fifth of delegates were decided.

In most previous presidential elections, by this time in the exercise there was little doubt as to who the eventual nominees would be. This time there is no such certainty.

The reason is that both Democrats and Republicans are experiencing insurgencies of the kind that have upset the politics of some European democracies, from France to Poland and passing by Spain and Italy. In Britain, the insurgency was limited to the opposition Labour Party which chose Jeremy Corbyn, the unlikeliest candidate, as its new leader. Such insurgencies are woven around a sense of anger and frustration by a substantial minority on both left and right with a charismatic figure emerging as if out of the blue to express it.

This is not the first time that a US presidential election has propelled mavericks under the limelight. In 1964, the Republicans nominated Senator Barry Goldwater who was almost a caricature of a Cold War warrior. In 1972, Democrats fielded Senator George McGovern whose chance of winning was no greater than that of a snowflake in hell. Thus, at this stage in the current race it would be premature to write off either Trump or Sanders possible nominees of their respective parties as many pundits do.

Both Trump and Sanders have been labelled ''populist'', a soubriquet that is open to many different interpretations. Two reasons are cited for that label. The first is that both men, though theoretically miles apart on ideology, play the theme of direct democracy against what they claim is a ''Washington establishment'' that has lost touch with the reality of life for most Americans. Sanders claims that one per cent of wealthy Americans have monopolized the fat of the land and are depriving the majority of the fruits of their labor. Sanders' solution is not a classical revolution in which the mass of the poor seize power and chop a few heads and create their Utopia. The septuagenarian senator from Vermont is a distributionist, that is to say a European-style Social Democrat that uses taxation as a means of funnelling funds to the poor from the rich.

He promises completely free education up to the highest level, an expansion of free health coverage to the lower and middle income families and a gradual absorption of the 12 million illegal immigrants who live in the United States.

That requires a stronger government at the center to devise and impose policies that many individual states are sure to resist. All in all Sanders plays the theme of hope, at times even forlorn hopes.

Trump on the other hand plays the theme of fear by claiming that immigrants, especially from Latin America, are about to overwhelm the nation. He has promised to build a wall at the frontier with Mexico to keep immigrants out. Fear of Islamic terrorism, brought in from ''the outside'', is also a favorite Trump theme.

Trump's message is less consistent than Sanders for at least one reason. The senator from Vermont promises to expand the power of the government to achieve major changes to the way the US functions. Trump, however, wants radical changes while reducing the size of the very same government which would be needed to achieve them. At this stage, Sanders' chances of being on the ticket next November are much less than Trump's.

Mrs. Clinton has a number of advantages. She controls the party machine and has managed to unite the coalition of minorities, created by President Barack Obama, behind her. African Americans and Hispanics representing 12 per cent of the electorate each provide the pillars of that coalition. Then there are Jews and Muslims, each with 2 per cent, that give the pro-Democrat coalition an edge in swing states. Gays and lesbians and trans-genders, some 2 per cent, and Native Americans, 1.2 per cent provide the pro-Democrat coalition with additional support. This means that whoever is the Democrat nominee starts with a good support base of around 30 per cent.

Outgoing President Barack Obama is also likely to play a crucial role. One guess is that he will try to impose someone of his choice as vice-presidential candidate on a ticket headed by Mrs. Clinton. If Clinton plays along with that gambit, Obama, a formidable candidate though a mediocre president, would be in the field helping her secure victory.

The Republicans can count on Christian fundamentalists, around 10 per cent of the population, non-Muslim Asian-Americans, around 3 per cent, and a number of one-issue electoral blocs such as pro-gun and anti-abortion lobbies accounting for perhaps another 4 per cent. Add to them the so-called ''white suburban'' vote and the Republicans start with a maximum of 25 per cent support base.

That means they have far more need of appealing to independent voters than do the Democrats. In that context, Trump is not the Republicans' best candidate because he antagonizes the independent voters more than any of his rivals. That is partly counter-balanced by the fact that he has managed to attract many new voters, people who had always been on the margins of political life. In fact, it is largely thanks to these outsiders rather than regular Republican sympathizers that Trump has managed to win around a third of the 1200 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination at the coming convention.

One crucial question is whether Trump, his current position as front-runner notwithstanding, can win the Republican nomination. ''Super Tuesday'' has increased support for a yes answer to that question. However, Trump isn't yet home and dry. To start with, so far he has failed to win any state with a straight majority of votes. Working out an average, some 65 per cent of those who have voted in primaries so far voted against him. He has won in eight states with a plurality, and could win in a few more states, but may not be able to translate that into a majority.

One American shibboleth claims that ''anyone could become President of the United Sates''. And, yet, in practice, few aspirants after that powerful position have escaped castigation on the grounds of their previous life experience which made them just ''anybody''. President Harry Truman's opponents always dismissed him as ''the haberdasher from Missouri''; even though he had been a legislator and Vice-President for decades. More recently, Jimmy Carter was branded ''the peanut farmer'' and, later, Ronald Reagan received the soubriquet of ''Hollywood cowboy'' although he had been governor of California, the largest state, for eight years.

Thus, now Trump is hardly ever mentioned without the label ''property mogul'' or ''business tycoon'' attached to his name. A great deal of time and energy is spent on showing that Trump was never as successful in business as he claims or that his private life has been as eventful as a penny-dreadful novel.

All that isn't surprising; Trump is a celebrity in an age in which celebrities have replaced heroes who had earlier replaced the gods of Olympus. More than being a person, let alone a political leader, Trump is a brand promoted for years by mass audience television through his own shows and frequent other appearances.

Despite the fact that many of the businesses that Trump started ended up in failure, the perception about him is one of success in an age in which perception is at times more important than reality.

What might a Hillary Clinton presidency look like? Clinton is a pragmatic machine politician more interested in winning power than exercising it for ideological purposes. In his memoirs Bill Clinton, Hillary's husband and mentor, depicts the scene in the morning after his first presidential victory. He says that he and Hilary woke up, still not believing that ''we had made it.'' He later admits that he had been more interested in winning power than in doing anything special with it. This is, perhaps, because he let the machinery of government do its work while he was otherwise engaged that Bill Clinton ended up a successful president at least domestically, and the only one in six decades to produce high economic growth and balanced budgets.

Hillary Clinton would represent boring continuity at a time that everything is up in the air in an international system bursting at the seams. Her supporters make much of her experience. But bad experience could be worse than no experience.To many republicans, Hillary Clinton remains as much of an object of hatred as her husband. Thus, if she is elected president, the US could revisit the ''beltway'' partisan wars of the 1990s that sowed the seed of the current fissure in the American governing elite.

Trump on the other hand has no political experience and certainly none as far as government is concerned. He is a blank sheet on which everyone could draw his or her own fantasies. And that could play in his favor.

If Trump's business life is any indication, a President Trump would be unable to focus on any mid or long-term policy. By nature he is like a sparrow flying from one branch to another. He has been property developer, golf-course manager, magazine publisher, banker, airline transporter, casino owner, and, of course, TV producer among other things. One guess is that he entered the political race not really thinking or wanting to win the Republican nomination. Initially, he had seen the sortie as a publicity stunt to keep him on TV and relaunch his sagging viewer rates.

That partly explains the fact that he has not offered anything remotely resembling a coherent policy on any issue. It is quite possible that he doesn't know what the issues are.
That may be both good and bad. It may be good because it means he has no deeply rooted convictions that, like Bernie Sanders, could keep him stuck in an ideological fantasy land. But it could also be bad because, as president, Trump might become a tool of bureaucrats, technocrats and lobbies reveling in having an ingénue in the White House.

On the positive side, Trump, though an egomaniac, doesn't appear to be afflicted by resentiments and personal hatred. He is a dealmaker and as such may be able to ignore personal and party barriers to get things done in a Washington often paralyzed by partisan feuds. In any case, presidency always helps reshape the man and even the most inexperienced, Obama is an example, could still plod along thanks to a powerful government machine and help from an experienced entourage. Trump's choice of a Vice-President could be crucial, especially if he picks someone experienced, for example the Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Trump, having seen the cup of success so close to his lips, may end up actually drinking it. Many powerful groups within the Republican Party are working hard to prevent him from becoming the nominee. The problem at the moment is that the party machine doesn't like Senator Cruz, the runner-up, while its new favorite, Senator Rubio, seems unable to take-off. Despite that, so far only one Republican Governor, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and only one Senator, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, have endorsed Trump.
After the next round of primaries on March 18, the machine will have to either persuade Cruz to withdraw in favor of Rubio or hold its nose and back the senator from Texas. That would reduce the choice between Trump and one other candidate. That one other candidate would instantly pick up the convention delegates of all the candidates who have fallen on the wayside, that is to say twice as many delegates as Trump has. Add to that the so-called ''super-delegates'', people given a vote in the convention because of their official positions or as grandees of the party, and Trump would not be able to drink the ambrosia in the cup.

Even if he does win the Republican nomination, Trump will still have a hard time winning the presidency. He has rightly claimed that he has created a movement, on the fringes of the Republican Party. But his movement lacks structure, leadership and experience in fighting elections. The Republican machine will not rally to him wholeheartedly, leaving him vulnerable, especially key swing states. His slogan ''Make America Great Again'' is an attractive marketing device. But elections need machines to ferry the old ladies to polling stations. In this, like in all other American elections, nothing is over until it is over.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York. 

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