The US Presidential Race

So, I’m not from the US. But, I’m still getting bombarded with news left right and centre about the US Presidential race, and everyone around me has no clue as to how it all works. I’ve sort of pieced together a few ideas about how I think it works, but there are still some things I can’t quite figure out or understand. So, I’m wondering if some of you could enlighten me by answering a few questions:

  • Why are we hearing only about the Democrat and Republican candidates, what about those that belong to the other Political Parties (there must be more than just 2 parties, surely?)

  • If I am understanding it correctly, how come the Political Parties don’t get to choose who represents their party for the Presidency?

  • What exactly is the significance of Super Tuesday?

  • Are the Presidential Candidate’s policies those of the party they represent, or their own?

  • From what I understand, whoever wins the Presidency gets to choose who the team of people are who will help run the country with them. Does the public know who all of those people are going to be before the final Voting happens, or is it a sort of blind faith that the President’s not going to pick a team of Loonies?

Those are my main questions for now - can anyone help me?

Answer #1

I didn’t realize the Queen of England was the Head of State for New Zealand, is that because your country is part of the Commonwealth? Of course, like you say, she doesn’t have any real power over your affairs.

It seems that one major difference between a two-party system like the US and a multi-party system like New Zealand, parties in your country sometimes have to form coalitions to take power. Does this happen a lot in New Zealand, and if so do you think it’s effective?

Answer #2

Yes, the Queen being the Head of State in NZ goes back to the days when NZ was simply a colony of Great Britain and all affairs were controlled from the UK, and hence a part of the Commonwealth. Over the years since NZ was colonized, we’ve slowly taken over our own affairs and become a fully fledged nation, but have yet to make the jump to becoming a fully independent country by declaring ourselves a Republic.

The current election system in our country is called MMP (Mixed Member Proportional), and has been in place for only about 13 years or so. Before that was a system which basically ordained the party which had the most votes 3/4 of the way through the counting process the winner, which lead to an almost-two party system. MMP was about giving smaller voices a chance at being heard, and keeping the larger parties in check.

Since the first MMP election (1996), every single time the largest party has had to form a Coalition with minor parties, sometimes as many as 3 or 4. Coalitions have their upsides, and downsides - a lot of good policies that otherwise would have been overlooked come to light now, and a major party has to consult with other parties about policies or legislation it wants to enact rather than steamroll it through (so the legislation usually becomes better). The downside is sometimes “hobby-horse” legislation is passed because a Coalition partner wants it in exchange for their support of something else, and the most infamous downside was in the first MMP election - the two major parties didn’t get enough for a majority, but a party called NZ First gained enough votes that it held the key to which of those two parties became Government. NZ First went back and forth between the two parties trying to get the best deal for 6 weeks before announcing who it was going into Coalition with, holding up the countries affairs for some significant amount of time.

However, MMP seems to work okay - a lot more of the people’s voice seems to get through than what was previously the case, because if a major party chooses to ignore it, chances are a Coalition partner will pick it up and force a deal out of the Government.

Answer #3

Wish I could help ya, but I have no idea. I know this answer is absolutely pointless. I’d like to understand it also, it confuses me. (I’m Canadian)

Answer #4

Yes, thank you very much kingofpop for taking the time to thoroughly answer my questions, it is very much appreciated. I find the primary/caucas process very interesting - I would have thought that the process would be uniform across all states, and would occur on the same day throughout the country.

Since you have taken the time to describe the US system, I’ll try and give you an overview of the NZ system. We don’t have Primaries or Caucases, since we are a Parliamentary Democracy and don’t have a President. The NZ model is slightly different than that of Australia and the UK, but here our equivalent of Congress/House of Representatives (Parliament) is the sole Policy setter/Law maker. Our Head of State is the Queen of England, but she does not have anything to do in terms of NZ affairs - hers is almost a token position in this day in age. We have our own Democrat/Republican party equivalents with similar ideas (Labour and National Parties respectively) but there are a number of other minor parties which are represented in Parliament, and the major parties must deal with those smaller parties to get stuff done if they don’t hold a majority by themselves. What parties make up Parliament and how much influence they get is determined by the Party vote on Election Day - the % of total votes of the parties that qualify to enter Parliament (5% or more of the total vote) determines it’s make-up. In this way, smaller parties are able to lend their support to the big parties in exchange for getting some of their key policies enacted - in this way, a minority who voted for a small party still get a chance to have the policies they liked put into action. That’s it in a condensed nutshell, hopefully it makes some sense!

Answer #5

Kudos to ‘kingofpop’ for all that information. Thats a lot of typing.

Answer #6

Interesting stuff. I always wondered how “coalition” governments were formed in parliamentary democracies like NZ, because the whole process was kind of confusing to me (much like our system to you). Like you say, a smaller party can suddenly find itself pulling a lot of influence if the two heavyweights are trying to court it for majority power.

I have to say I do like the idea of a multi-party system for the reason you described: it results in broader, more representative legislation getting through that actually has support from the people. For fielding candidates for an office, I think I like the two-party system better; at first, you have a lot of candidates competing for support, but they gradually get narrowed down to the strongest through voting and campaigning.

Answer #7

To answer your first question, the US does have other political parties, but most of them do not appear on the ballot in all 50 states and therefore do not have much chance of winning. Rules differ from state to state about how to get on the ballot, but it usually involves circulating petitions and getting a certain number of signatures by a certain deadline. One exception in recent history was Ross Perot, an independent in 1992, who managed to get on the ballot in all 50 states (if I remember correctly).

Second question: they do get to choose, which is what these primaries and caucases are all about. In the US, when you register to vote, you also register with a party or you can register independent. Registered voters from each party choose who they want to represent that party for president, and they do this at the state level by participating in either a primary (open or closed) or a caucus. Again, the rules differ by state. In the caucus (like Iowa) registered party members attend meetings and vote who they want to be the party candidate. A caucus is interesting because if you’re undecided, people at the caucus will approach you and attempt tp persuade you to vote for their person. In a primary (like New Hampshire and most states have), there is no meeting; all registered voters from any party just vote by ballot. In closed primaries, you can only vote for the party you’re registered with. In open primaries, you can vote for a Republican or Democrat even if you’re not registered with them. Then, once all the votes are tallied, in every caucaus and primary, delegates meet later in the year for the official nomination.

Super Tuesday is simply the day when the majority of states hold their primary or caucus. There are still a few that haven’t, which is why no one is saying for certain who the nominees are. But the heavyweights (Texas, California, New York, Ohio, New Jersey, etc.) have theirs on “Super Tuesday”.

Next question: I like the two party system we have; not everyone does. However, the two parties have very broad platforms that encompass people with many different views. The Democrats tend to be the more liberal party, the Republicans more conservative; however, candidates within those parties can vary in their liberalism or conservatism. Bill Clinton, for example, turned out to be a fairly moderate Democrat compared to Jimmy Carter or LBJ, while George W. Bush has been criticized by some as not being conservative enough on key issues. In the current election, I would say Barack Obama and John McCain are definately the more moderate candidates, while Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney are more on the left and right ends of the spectrum.

For your last question, when a person wins the nomination for his or her party, they typically choose their vice presidential running mate before the national election. The two campaign together. However, once elected, they choose who their cabinet will be. The US constitution really doesn’t say anything specifically about the cabinet; it’s become a tradition since George Washington to have one though. However, after the president chooses who he wants to be in his cabinet, all positions must be approved by a simple majority vote in the Senate; so yes, there is a check on who the president puts in office, although it is obviously possible for “loonies” to still get in there :)

Hope that helps. I’d like to know more about the set ups in New Zealand, UK, Australia, etc. But what makes me sad is, some Americans don’t even know enough about our system to even think to ask the questions you did.

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