Clinton, Trump, Sanders and Cruz.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
More than 10 months remain before Americans go to the polls to elect a president to succeed Barack Obama, yet the country, judging by its media, is in a frenzy. Before the first state (Iowa) conducted any sort of selection, there were seven Republican debates including as many as 17 candidates per session, and four Democrat debates.
In Iowa, there is a caucus system which few people outside (or inside) the state understand. After its complex results are tallied (they are different in each party), Iowa chooses a total of about one percent of the delegates who will actually determine the selection of candidates at the national conventions. But the results are proportional. In the Republican Party, for example, 1,236 votes are necessary to win the party nomination. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the “winner” in Iowa, gets eight of these delegates while Donald Trump and Florida Senator Marco Rubio each get only seven! Of the 2,383 majority needed at the Democrat convention, Hillary Clinton won 22 in Iowa to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ 21! Yet the media attention would suggest a crucial contest has taken place, one with profound consequences.
Surrounding each debate there were days of hype, promotion and intense excitement. The debates drew television audiences of 10-14 million viewers. All this happened on average over 12 months before the election and over nine months before the conventions.
I spent last week in the States, but it is hard for an visitor to understand the amount of time, emotion and enthusiasm invested in ostensibly preliminary skirmishes to an election so far away.
We are told that the Iowa results are important as a precursor of what will follow. But surely the polls are a better harbinger. Since 1972, 43% of the Democrats and 50% of the Republicans who won in Iowa moved on to gain the nomination. Between Clinton and Sanders, therefore, a coin toss would yield better results, and the election results in the Republican contest are close enough to warrant great caution. More importantly, the Iowan voter profile (close to 90% white) is far from that of the American public as a whole.
I think the secret of all this attention and hullabaloo can be deciphered from the leading TV story I saw last Tuesday morning in New York City. A young boy was attacked by a raccoon on his way to school. I am sure this was distressing to his family and close neighbors, and would not wish this experience on anyone, but I would be gratified if this were the type of lead story we heard in Israel. On the previous morning in New York, the big stories involved television shots of streets in Queens which had not yet been plowed.
A prominent story featured an unfortunate man who shoveled his driveway for 45 minutes only to find later that a City snow plow had passed through his street creating a blocking wall of snow. I saw repeated replays on two different channels of interviews with this frustrated chap.
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American are bored. They have the good fortune to be preoccupied with weather forecasts. And while once in a while there are incidents which cause fear and even terror (there was a random knife-slashing in New York City during my week’s stay), the normal news diet is mundane, repetitious and innocuous. One cannot cease to be amazed at what is considered newsworthy there. And jealous.
Thus, a political debate, particularly with an unpredictable, rambunctious Trump or a celebrity-defying Sanders, is exciting. It definitely trumps the weather.
And an election, particularly with a result which defies the advance poll in one party and which is a neck and neck tie in the other, involving (literally) coin-tossing victories in some of the districts, sure beats the excitement of snow removal in Queens.
So, America was fixated on Iowa and now moves on to New Hampshire.
Despite the inconsequential numbers, though, there may still be something to learn from its results. Hillary does not wear well. She comes across as canned, artificial and unconvincing. That a relatively unknown senator who has served for nine years in the Senate and 16 years before that in the House without attracting any attention or following can come from a negligible standing to a dead tie with her says much more about Hillary than it does about Bernie. She does not inspire support or confidence now any more than she did in 2008 when a newly elected senator came from nowhere to snatch the nomination. It seems improbable that a self-declared socialist will win the Democratic nomination, so Hillary might succeed by default. But she surely is defeatable in the general election, even if the Republicans take time getting their act together. I would not be surprised if a demoralized Democratic Party calls back Vice President Joe Biden from his self-declared retirement in the face of sustained stumbling by Clinton.
And what about the Republicans? Trump is exciting.
He defies convention and seems to say whatever he is thinking, which is not always politically correct and sometimes is downright scandalous. Cruz lives up to his reputation as obnoxious and Rubio continues to impress. Jeb Bush is dull and uninspiring, but seems more or less acceptable to all factions. All the rest are campaigning for a seat in the cabinet.
With the snow completely plowed and Iowa in caucus, I returned to Israel. Just in time to hear about the former prime minister admitting that he obstructed justice.
I like the snow story better.
The author is an attorney in Jerusalem and New York
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