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Friday, 30 September 2016 02:08

The Presidential Race comes to my hometown

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Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that the USA is having a high-stakes race for president now, with the election to be held on Nov. 8, 2016. Not only is this election important for the future direction of the US, but it is, directly and indirectly, to much of the rest of the world. Several of my students in Taiwan have told me this week they watched part of the debate first debate this week. However, this year the drama is even higher because we have the first-ever woman candidate for a major party Hillary Clinton, Democrat) versus an iconoclastic billionaire new to politics Donald Trump, Republican).

If US politics seem confusing for many Americans, imagine how strange is must seem for many people outside the USA. In this post, I will try to give you a clear overview.

How does the USA choose a president?

In short, it's confusing. The US is the only country in the world that uses the Electoral College to select a president. In other words, when you vote, you do not vote directly for the presidential candidate. Instead, you vote for "ELECTORS FOR" the candidate of your choice. This topic itself is confusing, but I will try to explain.  When the USA was new country, around 1787, the idea of letting "We the people" have the ultimate political power and choose our leaders was a revolutionary idea. The Founders were walking a tightrope: they wanted to create a democracy, but knew that crowds can be fickle, and so they did not want to create a PURE democracy, where each person got to vote on each issue. So, they set up a system where voters (originally white males who owned property) could vote to choose some representatives, and those representatives would then vote to make laws. In other cases, there were "buffers" or "guardrails" against the voters having too much direct power. (So, the US is not so much a democracy, but a democratic republic). This is where the Electoral College comes in. Rather than voters choosing the candidate directly, they vote for the ELECTORS, who in turn vote for their party's candidate if he or she carries that state. In addition to being a "check" on an out-of-control pure democracy, the Electoral College was a protection for the small states. Think of the USA in 1787, when the Constitution was new. Small states like Rhode Island or Delaware were fearful of big states (like Virginia or New York) totally absorbing them politically, so the Electoral College, with its "winner take all" set-up for votes, was a protection for smaller states. To put it another way,the Electoral College is not only voters choosing a president, but it is actually STATES choosing a president too. This video tells you more.

So what does this means today? 

In the USA today, there are 50 states. Voters in each state can vote for president. Whether a candidate wins a state by a small or large margin, he or she "wins" that state, and ALL its electoral votes. This is called "winner take all." (Two exceptions: Maine and Nebraska, which can split electoral votes.) However, since some states (ie. California, Massachusetts) are strongly Democrat, there is really no drama or suspense there. Those states have voted for the Democrat candidate for the past several decades, so it is a sure bet the Democrat, Hillary Clinton, will carry those states. SO, Clinton does not need to visit those states to win voters (unless she wants to fund-raise from some millionaires there), and Trump will not go there either, because it is a waste of his time. In contrast, some other states (ie. Oklahoma, Wyoming) are strongly Republican, so there is no drama there either. Trump need not visit, because he will win it regardless, and Clinton will not visit, because she will lose either way. This map shows you how the states stand now: blue is Clinton-leaning, red is Trump-leaning, and grey is toss up.

What do those electoral numbers (votes) on the map mean?

Those numbers are the "electoral votes." In my view, the Founders were geniuses in how they distributed power among the states when the USA was a new country. Small states wanted an equal voice, so each state got two seats in the US Senate, whether it was a big or small state. In contrast, big states wanted more power based on their bigger populations, so states got seats in the House of Representatives based on their population. So, the Electoral College is a mix of these two plans. Each state has one electoral vote, based on their number of seats in Congress. So, since each state has at least two Senate seats, they get at least two electoral votes. And, since even the smallest states have at least one member in the House of Representatives, that means all states have at least three electoral votes (2+1=3). So, states like Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota, despite their large areas, have tiny populations, so they have three electoral votes each. On the other hand, the most populous state, California, has 53 seats in the US House, plus two senators, so they have the biggest number of electoral votes, 55 (53 + 2). The fact that California is a solid 55 is a huge advantage to the Democrats. The second-most populous state,Texas, with 38, leans Republicans.

How many electoral votes does it take to win the White House?

The Twelfth Amendment to the US Constitution puts that at 270, since that is a majority of the 538 electoral votes total. Remember that number, 270. That is the number of electoral votes to win the White House.

Is it possible to lose the popular vote, but win the Electoral College?

Yes, and it has happened four times in US history! The most recent and well-known time was 2000, when George W. Bush won (narrowly) Florida, and got all its electoral votes. It takes 270 electoral votes to win (See #4 above), and Bush eked out a win with 271 votes. Yes, that year, you can truthfully say, "George Bush won the White House by one vote." Since California and New York have big, Democrat-leaning populations, Al Gore racked up big margins, but since the states are "winner take all," the large margins did not help him at all. In other words, whether you win a state by a little bit, or by a landslide, you get all the electoral votes for that state. Ironically, Gore lost his home state of Tennessee that year, to Bush. If Gore had only carried his home state, he would have won the election. (The take-away? Take care of "the home folks.")

If so many states are strongly Democrat or Republican, where is the "drama" of this race?

At this point, in 2016, about 30-some states tend to be strongly for one party or the other. In other words, those states have voted either Democrat or Republican each time in the past four or five presidential elections. The drama comes from the remaining 10-12 states. These states have, in the past four presidential elections, gone for the Democrat some times and the Republican at other times, and the margin of victory is often very small. So, these states are sometimes called "battleground states," "swing states," or just "toss ups." Interestingly, my home state of Virginia, and where is headquartered, is one of these "swing states." For more than 100 years, Virginia was part of the "Solid South," which meant it was heavily Democrat, since even before the US Civil War. However, the last Democrat to carry Virginia from that era was Lyndon Johnson, who won Virginia in 1964. Starting in 1968, however, due to the national Democrat Party becoming more liberal, Virginia went for Republican presidential candidates, without fail, for almost 40 years! The Democrats finally broke their losing streak in 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama carried Virginia, thanks largely to the huge population and changing demographics of the Washington DC suburbs of Northern Virginia. So, George W. Bush (Republican) won Virginia in 2000 and 2004, while Obama (Democrat) did so in 2008 and 2012. That makes Virginia a "swing state." Many observers believe this was a main reason why Hillary Clinton chose Tim Kaine, a US Senator from Virginia, to be her running-mate. She probably figured that adding Kaine to her ticket would help her put Virginia in the bag. So far, polls show Virginia to be a toss up. Virginia's neighbor, North Carolina, is a battleground state too: Obama won it in 2008, but lost it in 2012. So, it may seem strange, but this election will be decided by how those dozen or so swing states vote, and that is why so much media attention focused on them, and why the candidates visit those few states over and over, and largely ignore the other 30-some states!

Are these "swing states" all of equal importance?

The likely answer is, "no." As I mentioned in #3 above, states have different numbers of electoral votes, so the bigger the state, the bigger the "prize" and the more important it is to win. And several "swing states" are huge. Florida, with 29 electoral votes, is the largest battleground state. When George W. Bush narrowly won Florida in 2000 with just a few hundred votes, he won ALL that state's electoral votes, and thus the election. In 2004, Bush carried Ohio with 80,000 some votes, but that gave him ALL the Ohio electoral votes, and thus his reelection. In contrast, tiny New Hampshire has only 4 electoral votes, but in a very close election, that could be the margin of difference! Wouldn't that be crazy: the entire US presidential election being decided by one tiny state like New Hampshire? It is possible!

If Virginia is a battleground state, is Southwest Virginia a crucial area? 

Yes. Look at the evidence. Last summer, when Trump named Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate, their first joint-appearance was in Roanoke, Virginia, my hometown. Just last week, in the last appearance before their Monday debate, Trump visited Roanoke again, this time to a sell-out crowd of 10,000. As mentioned above, the Washington DC suburbs of Northern Virginia are becoming more and more Democrat, thanks to many people from out of state and other countries moving in. So, for Trump to carry Virginia, he will need to run up big margins in rural Western and Southside Virginia. Elections are exciting, and it is exciting to live in a "battleground state" now-- you feel like you have a front row seat to a national drama.

What are some key points Trump made during his speech?

The most pressing human rights issue of our time: school choice. (In the past, private school was only for wealthy families who could afford to pay the tuition. However, the "school choice" movement calls to create ways for families to have more choice as to which school their child will attend, public or private, regardless of income. Trump says that a vote for him is a way to gain more school options for families. In contrast, Clinton is a big foe of school choice.) To African-American voters. What do you have to lose?(

Since the 1930's, black voters have been a key Democrat Party voting bloc. In most elections, blacks vote Democrat by about a 90% margin. However, many economic indicators show that many African-Americans are still struggling financially, despite the excitement and optimism surrounding Obama's 2008 victory. Trump is trying to win some African-American votes, or at least try to reduce black votes for Clinton. The African-American vote was a huge part of the "Obama coalitions" of 2008 and 2012.  Will they be the same for Clinton this year?) Watch the Trump rally in Roanoke, VA for yourself:



To learn more about how politics affects life in America, consider joining us for a semester!

Read 23761 times Last modified on Monday, 14 August 2017 11:13
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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