The US Primary Season : A freakshow worth billions of dollars

The biggest political freakshow on Earth has once again roared to life: the American presidential primary season. To presumptive Eurocrats used to boring Brussels, it can seem like a circus, but it is still a circus wherein billions of dollars are circulating.

The US Republican primary candidate, Donald Trump
The US Republican primary candidate, Donald Trump

The US Presidential elections might still be more than a year away, but the primary season is already in full swing. In it, both Republicans and Democrats select their nominee for the US presidency. Before a square off in the general election of november 2016, the nominees have to win these often brutal intraparty contests.

Money has always been more present in US politics than in European politics, but this election season promises to top the record table. The 2010 Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court, which ruled monetary contributions by corporations to be a form of free speech, led to the establishment of so-called super PAC’s. These super PAC’s can pump unlimited money into elections, as long as they promise not to openly consult with a candidate who has officially started his campaign. However, this regulation is easily circumvented. Jeb Bush, the presumptive Republican favorite, delayed his official entry into the race by months to coordinate with his PAC’s to raise staggering amounts of money. Bush is sitting on a war chest of more than 120 million dollars, with 108 million coming from his PAC’s. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is hovering around 67 million, with “only” 20 million coming from super PAC’s.

Hillary Clinton vs. Carly Fiorina, the future duel ?

The last presidential election, in 2012, was already the most expensive in history, with a total of more than 2 billion dollars spent. Four years later the super PAC’s are in full swing. Candidates can now be propped up by one mega-rich donor if they so please. This has lead to a huge increase in candidates, with 23 serious contenders (5 on the side of the Democrats and 18 on the Republican side). The primaries, which used to be a circus where a few “extremist” candidates tried to grab national media exposure before quickly burning out and giving way to the more electable “establishment” alternatives, risk devolving into a total freakshow. Extreme candidates can stay in the game longer and attack more furiously thanks to billions of dollars coming in from outside. The party establishment of both the Republicans and the Democrats are already fearful of their candidates being pulled too far to the right or the left, which might hurt their chances in the general elections.

The potpourri of candidates is more significant on the Republican side, whereas Clinton is enjoying a steady but diminishing lead on the Democratic side. The money is flowing wildly and candidates hope to make headlines with outrageous quotes. For example, there is the former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, who criticised the recent Iran Nuclear deal by saying “Obama is marching the Israelis to the doors of the oven.” One millionaire has already plegded more than 3 million to his campaign, but Huckabee is stuck at a measly 3% in the polls.

Or take the conservative darling Ted Cruz, US Senator from Texas. Besides denying climate change and being anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage, he has already pocketed over 30 million dollars from three billionaire donors. Cruz is doing a bit better, hovering around 6% in the polls.

Hillary Clinton's challenger, Bernie Sanders
Hillary Clinton’s challenger, Bernie Sanders

It comes as no surprise that some candidates are running in opposition to these methods of financing. There is Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor and campaign finance reform activist, who is contending for the Democratic nomination. More significant is Bernie Sanders, a self proclaimed “socialist” Senator from Vermont also running from the Democratic side. Sanders refuses to take contributions from Super PAC’s and relies instead on small contributions. Among other progressive positions, this has helped propell him to around 22% in the polls (and rising) compared to the 47% of Clinton – much to the surprise of pollsters.

However, nothing compares to the meteoric rise of businessman Donald Trump to the top of the Republican contest. Trump is a real estate mogul and billionaire, and currently polls at 28% – far above any of his opponents. His brash attitude and his tendency to speak his mind have made for a very unconventional primary campaign. Trump has repeatedly warned that big money and special intrests control US politics, especially while referring to Clinton and Bush. He has also promised to bankroll most of his own campaign, although it’s been less clear if he will accept Super PAC contributions or not. Trump’s attitude seems to be popular among voters, who see it as a positive thing, saying that Trump will be able to take on the big corporations and big money – while simultaneously being part of it.

It’s gonna be a long ride with many millions still to go untill the primary voting starts in Iowa and New Hampshire from February 2016 onwards. It promises to become a most amazing and bizarre campaign. Will the establishment figures with huge war chests, like Bush or Clinton, end up in the front? Will a Republican radical backed by some billionaires disrupt the primary? Or will upstart candidates that protest the campaign finance system take the nomination?

Korneel de Schamp


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