US Presidential election: following the money

Now the initial results from Super Tuesday (3 March 2020) are in, Kim Moody walks us through the labyrinth of the US Presidential elections – a system built on distrust of mass democracy. At the same time, he argues that the US is also experiencing a shift in political culture that runs deeper than its organised expressions.

Bernie Sanders speaking at a rally at the Durham Convention in Durham, NC, on 14 Feb 2020. Via wikicommons

Political parties without members. Presidential elections in which you don’t vote for the candidate you favour and where the candidate with a majority of the votes can lose. An electoral ‘college’ with no classrooms or physical location composed of ‘electors’ you’ve never heard of. ‘Primary’ elections invented a century ago by elitists who called themselves ‘progressives’ to undermine party organisation. These are the basic elements of the US system of choosing the county’s president and vice president. Not clear? All bourgeois democracies have ‘democratic deficits’, but that in the United State has some unique features. Let’s start at the beginning.

The slave owners and merchants who wrote the US constitution in 1787 were keen to be rid of monarchy and form a republic, but not so keen to give the unwashed masses of small farmers and urban artisans who had been the front line troops of the revolution much in the way of power. This led to the famous separation of powers, checks and balances, and federal system meant to thwart the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Direct election of the president and vice president was rejected as ‘too much upon the democratic order’. Little thought was given to political parties which did not yet exist in the new republic. Just who could vote and how they would do it were left to the states. That meant the evolution of the electorate from white male property owners to more or less universal suffrage was a long violent one that is still being contested. To look at the presidential election system as it has evolved, we will reverse gear and start at the end, more or less, of the election process.

It’s the second Tuesday in November and your American political counterpart has cast her ballot. OK, this American revolutionary socialist was not about to vote for a capitalist party, so she voted for some socialist or perhaps a Green who had no chance, so her vote didn’t count. But the complaisant liberal voting in the next booth cast his ballot for the Democrat as did a majority of voters. Eventually our liberal learned that his candidate lost as in 2016 when Clinton beat Trump by three million votes. How can this be? Actually, that liberal didn’t vote for Clinton, but for a list of ‘electors’ none of whom he had ever heard of and whose names do not appear on the ballot. They are the potential Democratic members of the ‘Electoral College’ and are chosen by party officials who themselves are not elected by the party members since there are no party members. Beyond it being a state of mind, you become a Democrat, Republican, or independent by registering as such with the state for the purpose of voting.

The ‘electors’ chosen for each candidate in the general election compose the Electoral College. Theoretically, the candidate who wins the most electors wins the election. There are 538 of these mysterious characters, equal in number to the 438 Congressional Representatives from the 50 states and the District of Columbia (Washington DC) plus 100 Senators, two from each state. As in the US Congress, this means that states with small populations get disproportionate representation due to the two Senators from each state. Bernie Sanders’ Vermont, for instance, with a small population, has one Representative and two Senators, hence it has three ‘electors.’ California with a huge population has many Representatives but also two Senators. This means that a tiny proportion of votes in a few states can tip the election to the loser of the popular vote, as in 2000 and 2016. So, the Electoral College vote is significantly less representative than the popular vote, just like the slave owners and merchants who wrote the constitution intended it.

The party’s presidential candidate is chosen at the party’s national convention held in the summer before the general election. In the old days party candidates were chosen at the convention in ‘smoke filled rooms’ run by unscrupulous party bosses who, it was said, manipulated the votes of poor immigrant working-class people. To put an end to this, about 100 years ago, upper class reformers calling themselves ‘progressives’, who shared the ‘founding fathers’ distrust of the masses, invented the primary election to supplant the smoke filled rooms – and incidentally marginalise the immigrants and make life difficult for then newly formed Socialist Party which was electing hundreds of local officials across the country. Naturally, the unscrupulous party bosses quickly learned how to manipulate the primary vote. Worse yet from an elite point of view, trade unions eventually entered the process mobilising members in support of the relatively more pro-labour candidates among the Democrats.

Having already learned of the power of money in the general election, eventually the upper classes fought back with increased political spending in the primaries. This was done mostly by funding moderate-to-conservative middle class professionals, especially lawyers, to become candidates and office holders of both major parties. (The median worth of all members of Congress as of 2015 was $1.1 million compared to $162,000 for a white household and $16,000 for a black household.) The use of primaries was greatly expanded after the fiasco of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago which chose Hubert Humphrey as candidate in ‘smoke-filled room’ fashion, even though he had not won a single primary. Furthermore, the convention faced disruptive mass anti-war, anti-racist demonstrations met by a massive police riot – another reason for diffusing the candidate selection process. After that the impact of money accelerated even further.

Today, the role of trade unions and old party bosses has faded and presidential primaries are the focus of vast amounts of fund raising and spending. The two major parties spent $1.5 billion on the 2016 primaries, up from $94.2 million in 1980. Over the past decade, the top ten individual donors in presidential elections contributed $1.2 billion to parties, candidates and political action committees (PACs). Altogether over that period some $4.5 billion of non-party, outside (rich people or corporate) donor money has been raised. So far in 2019-20 up to Super Tuesday the candidates have raised $1.6 billion among them.

Although once billed as a form of ‘direct democracy’, the presidential primaries are also not where you vote for your preferred candidate. Rather, they are where you vote for delegates to the national convention who will select the party’s presidential candidate. Most primaries are held at polling stations like other elections. A few state parties hold ‘caucuses’, like the botched one in Iowa, where party loyalists gather and vote in person for delegates ‘pledged’ to support their preferred candidate. In whatever manner the voting is done, the delegates elected in the primary are theoretically ‘pledged’ to support the candidate they were elected to support. Nevertheless, they can and do change their votes at the convention. So, while the smoke may have cleared a good deal of ‘backroom’ politicking still goes on.

Some time ago, as an additional barrier to unconventional candidates, Democratic Party leaders created a group of  convention ‘superdelegates’ that were selected by and beholden to these leaders and who could, if need be, block someone like Bernie Sanders even if he had won the most regular delegates in the primaries. There will be 771 such ‘superdelegates’ at the 2020 Democratic National Convention in addition to 3,979 elected ‘pledged’ delegates. Unless Sanders wins a majority (1,991) of delegates on the first ballot, which is highly unlikely, this is enough to block him and put the party establishment’s favoured candidate over the top at the convention in a close race. While this would be visibly undemocratic, all the other candidates and several party higher-ups have said openly they would favour using the superdelegates in a brokered convention to stop Sanders. In other words, the indirect democratic exercise carried out in the primaries may or may not determine who is the party’s presidential candidate.

The big news from Iowa was not that some algorithm screwed up the results, or from New Hampshire that Elizabeth Warren fell way behind, but that the gay man and the socialist were the front runners in both, while the mainstream hope of centrist party regulars, Joe Biden, was falling behind. Nevada promoted Sanders even more, while South Carolina revived Biden’s campaign. Furthermore, to a greater degree than even in 2016, issues and policies (Medicare for All, Green New Deal, etc.) rather than just personalities or style are an important piece of this year’s presidential primary.

Until Super Tuesday, the party’s political centre was divided between three major candidates with Warren holding on to liberal supporters who would support Sanders if she dropped out. Sanders is leading, but with only about 25% of the vote in most states so far. No matter how diverse, the field behind Sanders was one of mainstream moderates who garnered the lion’s share of the votes in most states. As candidates drop out, as did moderates Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar both of whom endorsed Biden, centrist disunity is giving way as the party establishment unites behind an acceptable moderate.

As party establishment figures rushed to endorse Biden for Super Tuesday, the ‘other billionaire’ (besides Trump), Democrat turned Republican turned Independent turned Democrat again and former New York Mayor, Michael ‘Stop and Search’ Bloomberg’s pricey dream of power began to fade. He has now dropped out, and given Biden his backing. Furthermore, if Warren stays in the race after Super Tuesday it will hurt Bernie as some 40% of her supporters say Bernie is their second choice. If she drops out he will get a boost. But as many studies and recent votes have shown, her base of middle class professionals is very different from Bernie’s far more working-class supporters.

Money is ‘primary’

Still, you might ask, how did the socialist and gay candidates get into such a high stakes contest in the first place? Oddly enough, it is not that difficult to become a primary candidate. First, you register with the Federal Election Commission and prove you have raised at least $5,000. Then to actually get on the primary election ballot or caucus in each state you need to collect signatures. The number differs from state to state and can range from a few hundred to over 26,000 in California. Sometimes they have to be spread over congressional districts to make it a little harder. Some states charge a fee, but none are exorbitant. However, you need a lot of states to get anywhere. That means more signatures, hence more organisation and money.

The real barriers, however, come into effect in running viable campaigns in a large number of states where you will need lots more money. This is partly because American election campaigns are no longer conducted primarily on the door step by volunteers, so much as via expensive media channels, robo-calls, pricey algorithm-toting consultants (an army of Dominic Cummings), personnel usually associated with large-scale rock concerts, etc. So, the main catch to getting anywhere is money.

Lest you doubt this, those (left, liberal or centre) who have raised the most are those among the top five candidates so far. Here is what the recent front runners raised in the 2019-2020 election cycle just prior to Super Tuesday.

  • Michael Bloomberg (billionaire moderate) 464,143,378
  • Bernie Sanders (social democrat) $134,069,993
  • Elizabeth Warren (liberal) $92,023,330
  • Joe Biden (neoliberal centrist) $76,200,914
  • Pete Buttigieg (moderate/centrist) $75,427,078 (pre-dropout)
  • Amy Klobuchar (moderate/centrist) $28,736,113 (pre-dropout)

It is not that having more money than the next candidate always guarantees victory, as Warren is demonstrating, but that without huge amounts you are just not in the contest in the first place. All the others except entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has dropped out, raised much less. Though much of this money for Sanders and Warren comes from small donations and crowdfunding, a good deal also comes from wealthy and corporate donors. For most of his career, Sanders refused business contributions. That changed in this election cycle. There is one more hurdle on the road to nomination.

Party apparatus as barrier

Despite having no members, the Democratic Party has a massive national apparatus in the well-staffed and funded Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the constellation of several other committees that raise funds, select and train candidates, aid party favourites in elections, etc. So far in the 2019-2020 (14 months) election cycle the Democratic Party’s official structures together have raised $419 million and spent $340 million prior to Super Tuesday. Because the party has no members and, hence, no dues or member contributions, most of this is from corporate or wealthy donors. Union contributions are a tiny percentage. This is separate from all the money mentioned above raised and spent by candidates themselves or ‘outside’ committees.

The DNC and other official national party committees are supposed to remain neutral during the presidential primaries. But much goes on behind the scenes. For example, party loyalty is more important to party officials, apparatchiks, and most current political office holders than specific policies. So, Elizabeth Warren, a slightly suspect former Republican turned born-again New Deal liberal, has spent the last year personally travelling the country to assure party big wigs she is a loyal Democrat (and a self-proclaimed capitalist), while, she reminds them, Bernie Sanders has always run as an independent (and is a self-proclaimed socialist), hence, not a real Democrat.

The most important question to party officials this year is ‘who can beat Trump?’ While poll after poll, indeed, 67 out of 72 such surveys, show that Sanders does a better job of beating Trump than any of the others, the assumption that a socialist no matter how mild a Swedish-style reformist cannot possibly win a US presidential election is the unchallengeable, received wisdom of responsible party leaders and their major corporate donors. Biden and Buttigieg have already attacked Sanders as unelectable due to his socialist identity, as well as arguing that Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are impractical and too expensive. The electability argument (sound familiar) has already hurt Sanders who so far has gotten fewer union endorsements this time. So, expect much more back-channel trolling and soft red baiting as well as nastier public campaigns and centrist resistance to big ticket reforms like Medicare for All. Furthermore, as the New York Times put it after New Hampshire, ‘Campaign costs will only escalate from here.’ Enter Michael Bloomberg even if briefly.

Super Tuesday results & prediction

As Super Tuesday when 14 state-hold primaries approached, the party apparatus along with the media mobilised to blunt Sanders’ momentum. The press announced the revival of Joe Biden and when voting occurred on 3 March noted that a huge proportion of voters waited until the last couple of days to decide who to vote for. In fact, both Biden’s new momentum and the late voters were explained mainly by the last minute exit of moderates Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Their supporters had to stop and think for a second about who to vote for, but then predictably most of them backed the other major moderate, Biden. So, Biden took 10 of the 14 states bringing his vote to almost 40% and his delegate count to 435 (at the most recent count). Thus, while Biden held on to the southern black vote due to his loyalty to Obama, he gained most if not all of the white moderate/centrist vote almost everywhere.

Despite the apparent set-back, Sanders maintained his average vote of 25% or more with 344 delegates based heavily on the Latinx vote and that of younger people in the 18-34 cohort, including working-class voters with only a high school education or less. Bloomberg and Warren with upper middle class backing did very poorly. There is still a long way to go, but barring a big surge for Sanders, the moderates appear to have the advantage in what will now be essentially a two-person race. Regardless of the outcome, the significance of a self-proclaimed socialist gathering millions of votes should not be underestimated.

Reflected somewhat in the Sanders’ campaign, a still marginal but significant new political left that proclaims itself socialist, as opposed to liberal, has emerged in the last few years. Sanders is the symbol and for now the main standard bearer, perhaps along with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). The 13 million people who voted for Sanders in 2016 and the many who will do so this time are a broader indication of changing political attitudes. The rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to over 50,000 members, many of them youngish social movement or even union activists, is another visible sign. But this shift in the political culture appears to run more deeply than its organised expressions.

A Gallup poll taken in April 2019 reveals a surprising change of attitude across the voting-age population. Given a choice of which was better for the country, capitalism or socialism: among those who answered the survey 43% thought socialism would be better for the country. Women were more likely to approve of socialism than men, 48% to 43%. All those 18-34 years old, the Millennials, favoured it by 58%. Nor was it just educated people who saw socialism as positive. Those of all ages with a university degree saw socialism as a good thing by 45%, but those with only a high school education or less who make up the largest cohort of the non-managerial workforce favoured it by 46%. ‘Non-whites’, who also compose a large percentage of the US working class favoured socialism by 57%. Just what the survey respondents meant by socialism is anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t the capitalist status quo.

The problem is the Democratic Party and the electoral system in general are not hospitable terrain for building organised expressions of this changing consciousness. That will have to start in the workplaces, streets, and neighbourhoods. While the primaries may give us an indirect idea of how popular socialism is as represented by Bernie Sanders, the multi-million dollar enterprise that is the Democratic Party is not about to be transformed into a party of labour or social democracy, much less socialism, regardless of the outcome.

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