Road to White House Paved With Distinctly American Quirks

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So you want to be president of the United States? It seems like an attractive job: six-figure salary, nice house, company car, private plane, although you sometimes have to share it with journalists.

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Photo: Gage Skidmore
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves to supporters at a hangar at Mesa Gateway Airport in Arizona last December.

But getting to the point where you can enjoy all of those perks first requires that you navigate the U.S. election process, and that takes perseverance, a thick skin and an appetite for the quirks and peculiarities that make up an American election.

We’ve compiled a list of some of the oddities and eccentricities that make the road to the White House such a distinctly American journey.

The Debates

Debates have been a part of the U.S. political landscape since 1858, when Abraham Lincoln, who was not yet president, faced off against Stephen A. Douglas, one of two senators for the state of Illinois. Lincoln wanted Douglas’ state senate seat and the two agreed to debate in most of Illinois’s nine congressional districts. They also agreed on a format for the debates: One of them would open with an hour-long address, the other would then speak for an hour and a half, and then the first would have half an hour to rebut the other’s points. Sounds scintillating, right?

Well, thousands turned out to watch each of the seven debates, which focused on the hot-button issue of the day: slavery. Among other things, Douglas noted that the Declaration of Independence (which states that “all men are created equal”) was written by white men and, therefore, intended for white men only. Lincoln argued that it applied to all men regardless of skin color. Lincoln lost the senatorial election, but the debates are said to have propelled him to his presidential election win in 1860.

Over 100 years later, there was another landmark debate, between incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon and a young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. The 1960 debates were the first to be televised, and the medium immediately became a necessary tool in the kit of anyone who wants to be elected to office.

The 1960 debates “ushered in a new era in which crafting a public image and taking advantage of media exposure became essential ingredients of a successful political campaign” and “heralded the central role television has continued to play in the democratic process,” the History Channel writes. While most radio listeners said they thought Nixon won the first debate, a majority of the 70 million who tuned in on television deemed Kennedy, who appeared far more poised and natural on camera, the victor.

Fast forward to 2015. Prior to the first Republican debate in August last year, none of the more than dozen candidates was polling higher than 20 percent. But after the first debate, businessman Donald Trump surged ahead of the rest of the field.

If the candidate face-offs allow candidates to “showcase their oratory skills (or betray their inarticulateness), display their sense of humor (or reveal their lack thereof) and capitalize on their rivals’ gaffes (or seal their fate with a slip of the tongue),” as the History Channel says, then just why Trump’s debate performances have helped him so much is open to … debate. Still the frontrunner as 2015 drew to a close, Trump has had undiplomatic, unpresidential and sometimes incomprehensible things to say about Mexicans, Muslims, debate moderators, women, politicians, the media, the president and even his own daughter. Yet he continues to surf the wave of mass appeal.

Bottoms Up

Politics can be a blood sport, even for the spectators. With a crowded lineup of contenders hurling jabs and insults at one another, the recent Republican presidential debates have been both spirited and, at times, dispiriting. But a little booze can help the verbal sparring go down a bit easier.

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Photo: Barbara Kinney for Hillary for America
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to voters at the Osage Community Fire Department in Iowa during a campaign stop last month.

The newest political drinking game to capitalize on the empty rhetoric that on-camera debates tend to inspire is GOP debate bingo, which involves knocking back a tipple when a candidate utters a particular word or phrase. GOP debate bingo cards produced by Newsweek magazine include the names Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, John McCain and Jesus, and the phrases “don’t interrupt me,” “we need a wall” and “we need smaller government.” The aim of playing bingo and downing shots during the debate is to “make watching the debate as painless as possible,” Newsweek says.

Can’t access Newsweek online? No worries. The LA Times, Washington Post, USA Today and doubtless others have all produced similar GOP bingo boards. Among some of the other popular platitudes: “lower taxes,” “make America great again,” “repeal Obamacare” and “protect the Second Amendment.”

Republicans don’t have the monopoly on drinking, or drinking games for that matter. This time around, however, the Democratic race, dominated from the start by frontrunner Hillary Clinton, hasn’t inspired the same kind of devotion, and creativity, that the unpredictable Republican slugfest has.

But the concept of booze as a balm to the absurdity of politics is a universal one. The principle of GOP bingo appears to stem from the State of the Union drinking game, which was dreamt up by two Princeton University students in 2002 and could easily be transcribed into other languages and other countries’ politicians’ slips-of-the-tongue or speech patterns.

Pervasiveness of Polls

“America’s obsession with political surveys has reached record heights in this presidential campaign season, with polls of early states, polls of the nation, and even a ‘poll of polls’ that determines who gets a slot on the GOP debate stages,” Boston Globe journalist Matt Viser wrote in the Dec. 26 edition of the paper.

According to the Globe, there have been nearly 90 percent more polls of Republican voters in the first three primary and caucus states — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — during this election cycle than the last time around, in 2012.

The number of polls is up so sharply in part because it is so much easier to put together an online survey. Typing “make your own online survey” into a Google search produces 93 million results. But it could also be that polls are proliferating because of the wide-openness of the Republican race for the White House. At the time of writing, there were still a dozen candidates in the Republican race for the nomination after former New York Gov. George Pataki dropped out Dec. 29 (the American term is that he “suspended” his campaign).

The United States is one of the few countries where the publication of poll results is permitted throughout the election cycle. Singapore is at the other end of the spectrum and bans polls throughout the campaign period. Many European countries ban the publication of poll results immediately ahead of elections, from up to 15 days before voting (Italy) to 24 hours prior (France).

Iowa Caucuses

On the Democratic Party side, there are only three candidates: Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is a distant third to the other two. O’Malley organized an event in Iowa at the end of December that drew one person — a man identified as Kenneth. There are mitigating circumstances; a snowstorm was sweeping across the Midwest. O’Malley sat and talked with Kenneth but was not able to convince the lone guest to vote for him at the Iowa caucuses, according to the Hill newspaper. 

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Photo: Obama for America
Precincts for the Iowa caucuses are designated during Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2007. Iowa holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses while New Hampshire holds the country's first primary during an election year.

Akin to O’Malley’s one-man audience, Iowa wields an outsize influence on the U.S. electoral process. The state is of strategic importance to all the candidates, Republican or Democratic, because in early February it holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses to choose, or move a step closer to choosing, each party’s candidate for the nomination.

Primaries are state-level elections in which party members vote to pick a candidate who runs in the general election. Currently, 34 U.S. states hold primaries, with New Hampshire being the first. Caucuses, on the other hand, are community meetings (in schools, churches and even homes) where registered members of a political party gather to vote for their nominee. Caucuses, the oldest form of choosing delegates in the U.S., are usually held in addition to a state convention. Iowa holds the first caucus in the nation every presidential cycle and is fiercely protective of its first-in-the-nation status, which provides a major economic boost to the state.

As a result, the Midwestern state of 3 million is considered a bellwether in the campaign cycle, one that draws legions of politicos, journalists, advisors and, of course, candidates. Yet out of the state’s total population, only a tiny sliver (at times barely over 100,000 people) participates in the voting.

As a result, not everyone appreciates the myth and lore surrounding Iowa. The caucuses have been called overhyped, archaic and unrepresentative. In addition to the fact that a small minority of voters — fewer than 10 percent — participates, critics also note that Iowa is not representative of the ethnic diversity of the United States: In 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 92 percent of the state’s population was white. Voters in the Hawkeye State also tend to be rural and evangelical or born again Christian.

In addition, critics say that only the most die-hard party activists vote, skewing the national debate toward hardline positions. But defenders of the caucus system point out that it forces candidates to interact with well-informed voters. They say it embodies grassroots democracy and encourages old-fashioned retail politicking.

“It’s not just show up and vote,” a primer posted on the Fox News website a month before the February 2012 caucuses said. “And unlike in a primary, supporters of particular candidates are allowed to campaign on site. In fact, it’s part of the process. Before any votes are cast (and the term ‘vote’ is used loosely here), supporters and surrogates of the various campaigns are permitted a few minutes to make the case for their candidate. This process means it’s in every candidate’s interest to have a speaker at all caucus sites, as a way to sway uncommitted Iowans at the last minute,” Fox News said.

After the last-minute speeches, people who attend the caucuses write down their choice on a piece of paper, and the results are tallied. Those results don’t indicate whom Iowa will choose as their parties’ nominees, however. That is done after a somewhat convoluted process that culminates at the parties’ national conventions.

In fact, trying to explain the Iowa caucus system is no easy task. Former CNN presenter Larry King once said he never understood the vaunted tradition. But everyone knows about Iowa because its residents are the first to cast a ballot for president.

“Iowa got its leadoff position not because anyone thought this state would be a good place to begin a presidential nominating process, but simply because its multistage delegate selection rules required the state’s Democratic Party to change the timing of the 1972 caucus,” which was held in late January, even before the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire, write the authors of “Why Iowa? How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nomination Process.”

Iowa has a four-step electoral process. The reason the Iowa Democratic caucus was moved up to January in 1972 was because new party rules, which were intended to make the selection process more transparent, dictated certain calendar requirements. That year, however, there was a shortage of hotel rooms for the planned June date of the Iowa state convention, so the caucuses were pushed up, ahead of New Hampshire’s primary.

When the Democrats moved their Iowa caucuses up, the Republicans decided to do the same in 1976, which is when candidates began investing time and resources into the contest. The caucus calendar in Iowa is now enshrined in state law and in the two parties’ rules. If another state decides to pre-empt Iowa and leapfrog ahead of it, that state is punished by being allocated fewer delegates at the national convention, where the eventual nominee is chosen. As a result, the status quo is maintained, even though every four years, other states try to usurp Iowa’s coveted status.

It was in 1976 that the Iowa caucuses took on the importance that they have today. The little-known governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, “came in and worked the state, worked the caucuses very carefully, and he won,” government affairs consultant Philip Smith said on Northeastern University’s website.

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Photo: Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America
President Obama talks to a supporter by phone in Columbus, Ohio, during his re-election campaign.

“And that surprised everybody and it got his name on the national agenda. If he hadn’t have won those caucuses in 1976, he would have stayed as a peanut farmer,” Smith said.

But losing at the caucuses does not sound the death knell for a candidate’s political ambitions. Bill Clinton won just 2 percent of the Iowa caucus vote in 1992 but went on to be nominated as the Democratic Party’s candidate, and then to win the presidency. In 2008, the eventual Republican Party nominee, John McCain, polled 13 percent at the Iowa caucuses, far behind Mike Huckabee’s 34 percent. McCain was eventually chosen as the GOP candidate for the White House but lost to Barack Obama (who, incidentally, became a household name after winning Iowa).

Despite its spotty record for picking winners, particularly on the Republican side, Iowa can provide candidates with a high-profile bump, especially if they fare better than expected. Analysts also note that since 1972, no candidate who has finished worse than fourth place in Iowa has won the Democratic or Republican nomination.

New Hampshire Primary

The Feb. 9 primary in the Northeastern state of New Hampshire comes hard on the heels of the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses and is seen as a way of giving an early voice to the New England region — much like Iowa gives an early and important voice to the Midwest. The South and West have their voices heard in the South Carolina primary and Nevada caucuses, the first rounds of which are scheduled for Feb. 20.

In the New Hampshire primary, residents vote directly for the candidate of their choice. But just how representative the Granite State is of the mood of the country is up for debate because, like Iowa, New Hampshire is predominantly white. It is also a small state with roughly the same population as the Texas city of San Antonio.

Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire in 2008, but Obama, who won the Iowa caucuses that year, won the Democratic Party nomination. Obama was just the third Democrat in 30 years to lose in New Hampshire but go on to be chosen by his party to contest the presidential election. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, was the only candidate to lose in both Iowa and New Hampshire and go on to win the presidency.

According to CNN, South Carolina is often seen as the tie breaker between Iowa and New Hampshire, having predicted the eventual nominee in every primary race since 1980 except for 2012, when Newt Gingrich won. 

Why Tuesday? 

Another oddity of the U.S. voting system is the fact that Americans always vote on a Tuesday. And they do not get a day off work to vote.

The system dates from the time when the United States was an agrarian nation and many people lived in rural areas and traveled by horse and buggy. County seats, where elections were held, were often far from voters’ farms, and they needed a day to travel to these larger towns and cities to vote and a day to get back. The vote could not be held on or around Sunday, because it would interfere with the Sabbath. Wednesday was typically “market day” for farmers so Tuesday was chosen because it was a “court day” back in the 1800s — the day when landowners would be in town anyway to conduct business. So in 1845, a law was passed declaring the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as Election Day.

Clearly, the law is outdated. Happily, there are steps to change it. In 2013, Democratic lawmakers Steve Israel and Louise Slaughter, both from New York, re-introduced national legislation to move Election Day from the first Tuesday in November to the first full weekend of the same month. The Weekend Voting Act would mandate national polls to be open from 10 a.m. Eastern Time on the first Saturday in November to 6 p.m. Sunday in the 48 contiguous states — i.e. not Alaska and Hawaii, which are too distant from the East Coast to be bound by its time zone.

“Voting should be easy and accessible,” Congressman Israel said when he first introduced the bill in 2009. “This is why, in 1845, Congress decided that voting on a Tuesday made sense…. But times have changed, and Tuesday voting just doesn’t make sense anymore. By moving Election Day from a single day in the middle of the workweek to a full weekend, we are encouraging more working Americans to participate.”

In addition to recognizing that most Americans no longer travel by horse and buggy, it’s hoped that moving Election Day to the weekend will help to boost voter turnout. The United States currently ranks 138 out of 172 countries in terms of voter turnout, according to MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff (who, incidentally, at the time of writing, was attending a Donald Trump rally in the Iowa town of Council Bluffs).

Even in the landmark 2008 election, which saw Obama become the first African American elected to the White House, “Turnout was up, but barely higher than in 2004,” Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-founder of the Why Tuesday group, said. Polling stations are usually open for 12 hours on Election Day, meaning that most Americans only have an hour or two to cast their ballots either before or after work.


About the Author

Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on January 27, 2016