Lander Daniëls (illustration)
The first two tests of the 2016 presidential race, in Iowa and New Hampshire, demonstrate how polarised and volatile American politics has become. The electorate’s choices bear out early indications that they are rejecting the “establishment” on their respective sides. In the Democratic race, Bernie Sanders, the self-declared socialist senator from Vermont, is against Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State. Mrs Clinton leads Mr Sanders among African-American and Hispanic voters but Mr Sanders is starting to make inroads among new groups of supporters.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Donald J. Trump, the bombastic billionaire, dominates the Republican race. His decisive win in the New Hampshire primary has underscored the extent to which the 2016 race for the White House has made a mockery of conventional wisdom. Beyond Mr Trump, four mainstream Republicans were clustered together, each receiving less than 20 per cent of the vote. Unless one or two of the establishment politicians abandon their presidential ambitions, Mr Trump, who has solidified his frontrunner status, will continue to benefit from a fractured opposition.
Meanwhile, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg lifted his head above the parapet as he confirmed plans to enter the race as a third-party candidate.
Every four years, presidential candidates compete in a series of state contests during the winter and spring before the general election to gain their party’s nomination. Many presidential candidates begin campaigning informally in early-voting states like Iowa, the 30th most populated state, and tiny New Hampshire more than a year before their primary events.
At stake in each contest – either a primary or caucus – is a certain number of delegates, or individuals who represent their states at national party conventions. The candidate who accumulates a majority of his or her party’s delegates during the months-long process wins the nomination.
This year, the primary calendar kicked off on the first of February, when both the Republican and Democratic parties held their Iowa caucuses. Senator Ted Cruz, the maverick Texas senator, beat property tycoon Donald Trump into second place in the Republican race. Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, narrowly won the Democratic race over Bernie Sanders.
His success exposed a difficult and possibly intractable problem for the Democrats: their frontrunner and establishment favourite is an accomplished individual but a vulnerable candidate as a large share of the electorate find her untrustworthy and hard to relate to.
New Hampshire primary
The second major test of the 2016 presidential race, the New Hampshire primary, drew a huge turnout across the Granite state. Trump ran strongest among voters who were worried about illegal immigrants, increased economic turmoil and the threat of a terrorist attack in the US.
Meanwhile, Sanders, the first Jewish American to win a presidential primary in US history, was able to draw support from a wide cross-section of voters despite being largely written off by both the media and Democratic leaders.
“The American voters have delivered a rebuke to US political establishment in both Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Bart Kerremans, Associate-Professor of International Relations and American Politics at University of Leuven, Belgium.
“Sanders appears to have won substantial backing from New Hampshire’s independent voters but also from the left-wing of the Democratic Party as he emerges as an alternative to Senator Elizabeth Warren.”
Young Democrats are hungry for a more left-wing, more ideologically rigorous Democratic Party, but after eight years of Barack Obama the general public is not. This is a problem, and one the Sanders campaign has not yet offered a particularly compelling or detailed response to.
Over the last few years more and more Americans have been losing faith in their government. Wages are stagnant, economic inequality is growing, student debt is growing and money in politics is at an all-time high.
“Many young people in the US are worried about unemployment when they leave college,” Alex Gimbel, student of University of Florida, said. “We have seen our parents get poorer as the wealthiest people in the country get richer. Sanders represents a lot of hope, he’s held his positions for a really long time which makes him uniquely genuine among American politicians. Young Americans are worried about economic and social justice, and money in politics. Sanders has been talking about this issues not just his entire campaign but his entire career.”
The US presidential nominating process in the US is one of the most complex, lengthy, and expensive in the world. Like many good dramas, it is also episodic: the Iowa caucus; the New Hampshire primary; Super Tuesday; the conventions; the presidential debates; then, finally, the denouement of election night. For international spectators, it can seem freakish and bizarre: a long-running farce populated by demagogues and populists, which works as entertainment but is a poor advertisement for American democracy.
Modern-day campaigns in the US have become almost two-year marathons: Senator Ted Cruz, the first candidate to declare his candidacy, announced his intentions on 23 March 2015. As campaigns have become so elongated, money has become even more important.
Mr Obama and Mr Romney, as well as their respective allies, spent a record-breaking $2bn in the 2012 presidential contest. This year’s race could cost $5bn, much of that money coming from Super-Pacs (political action committees), which can raise unlimited funds.
The US presidential race will end at the national conventions in July, when party delegates officially select their nominee. However, since the parties made the process more transparent in the 1970s, presumptive nominees have often emerged much earlier, sometimes only after a few weeks of voting.
New Hampshire’s failure to impose any clear resolution on this year’s nomination races means that South Carolina, Nevada and the Super Tuesday states will take on greater importance in choosing the nominee.
 Patrick Healy and Jonathan Martin, “Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Win in New Hampshire Primary”, New York Times, 9 February 2016.