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US presidential polls exactly a year away

By Arun Kumar, IANS

Washington : On this day next year, America’s 200 million voters will choose their next president in what promises to be a billion dollar-plus election.

In reality, the American people pick up only delegates for the Electoral College – 538 to be precise. And these delegates may overturn the popular verdict days later.

Democrat Hillary Clinton, former first lady, and Republican Rudy Giuliani, New York’s mayor on 9/11, have been leading a pack of hopefuls for weeks. But it is by no means certain that they would face each other in the poll.

Sounds strange, but it has happened before not once but four times.

In 2000, then vice president Al Gore beat Texas governor George W. Bush by more than 500,000 votes in the national popular tally but lost by a mere five votes in the Electoral College, a group of “electors” appointed by each state to pick the president.

This was so because in the winner-take-all American system, Florida’s 27 votes in the Electoral College went to Bush after Gore lost the state by a 537-vote margin thanks to a few “hanging,” “pregnant,” or “dimpled” chads – little pieces of paper that fall when voters punch their votes on old fashioned voting machines.

It was the same story back in 1824, 1876 and 1888.

For although in popular perception, the American president is chosen in a direct election, people pick up only delegates – 438 based on the population, plus two more for each of the 50 states big or small. It’s these 538 people who meet Dec 15 to choose the nation’s chief executive.

But surely it would be a contest between Clinton, who has been scoring 44-48 percent in most surveys, and Giuliani, with 24-32 percent? No, don’t count on that.

For first they have to win nominations from their own parties at national party conventions slated for Aug 25-28 for the Democrats and a week later for the Republicans, the two parties that dominate American politics.

Delegates to these conventions in turn are selected by each party’s registered voters in direct primary elections, kind of heats in a race, and state caucuses or local meetings of party members. The results of these meetings are combined on a state-wide basis to determine a state’s party nominee.

So it’s hard to say which pair would run the final race. A third candidate too could jump into the fray. All that he or she has to do is gather 433,000 signatures.

The Democrats could well pick Hillary Clinton, the first woman with a real chance to make it to the White House, rising black star Barack Obama, John Edwards, Democratic nominee for vice president in 2004, or any of the lesser known aspirants as they did one Bill Clinton back in 1992 – a little known governor of Arkansas in the primary season.

On the Republican side, Giuliani faces a tough challenge from Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor, Fred Thompson, a former senator better known for his role in popular TV show “Law and Order”, and Senator John McCain, a Vietnam war veteran.

Clinton, Obama and Romney also lead the “money primary”, having raised over $20 million in the first three months of 2007. Three others, Edwards, Giuliani and McCain, raised over $12 million. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson garnered over $6 million.

The Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner estimates that the 2008 race will be a “$1 billion election” – more than double the $448.9 million it cost in 1996 – and that to be “taken seriously,” a candidate will need to raise at least $100 million by the end of 2007.

But who will be the bearers of the Democratic Blue and Republican Red flags may become fairly clear Feb 5, 2008, with 21 states, with half of the US population among them, moving to hold their primaries a month before the traditional Super Tuesday.

Thus what is being called Tsunami Tuesday, Giga Tuesday, or Super Duper Tuesday may well become the Unofficial National Primary even as the process continues through June, with two candidates collecting a majority of committed delegates to win their party’s nomination.

Historically, the Iowa caucus in the Midwest and the New Hampshire primary in New England, held in the January of each four-year presidential election cycle, have been the first two events in the race for each party’s nomination.

The Iowa caucuses have been set for Jan 3 and the New Hampshire primary Jan 22. But the rest of the 2008 schedule is unsettled, however, because several states, including Florida and Michigan, have announced plans to break party rules by holding their events earlier in the year, hoping to claim greater influence in the nomination process.

In the final reckoning, the Democratic candidate may have an advantage if President Bush’s approval rating remains low among voters and national issues – the war in Iraq, terrorism, immigration policy, energy dependence – remain unresolved by November 2008.

But with the Democratic-controlled Congress’ current approval ratings lower than Republican Bush’s, which way the wind blows a year from now is anybody’s guess.