x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

US election campaign system must be reformed

Capping candidates' budgets and cutting the amount of time they can spend on the road would lead to improved governance, writes Nick March.

US political organisations, supporters and interested parties spent more than US$5.8 billion (Dh21.3bn) during the 2012 election season and what did that expenditure achieve? The political deadlock of the past four years has been replaced by a return to political deadlock and President Barack Obama will have to work tirelessly to forge the necessary bipartisan agreements to solve his nation's $16 trillion debt problem.

That multibillion campaign figure, calculated by the Open Secrets website, includes all spending on presidential, senate and house elections and represents an increase from 2008's figure of $5.2bn. Eight years before that, election spending amounted to a relatively trim $3bn.

Much post-election talk has focused on how - despite Mitt Romney's assertion that he left everything on the field - the Republican Party dropped the ball in what had been deemed a winnable contest.

History does not fully support that idea. In truth, the vast majority of elected incumbent presidents, Republican or Democrat, are returned to office if they seek a second term. Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush are the only post-war exceptions to that rule and both came up against extraordinary challengers (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, respectively) whose charisma proved impossible for the American public to resist. Romney is many things  – his concession speech last week revealed him as a man of great dignity and grace – but few would ever put him in the same political bracket as either of those historical giants.

Analysts also point to the Republican Party's failure to keep up with the changing face of American voters, but that does not provide a wholly satisfactory answer to the final result either.

Presidential elections are no longer nationwide contests in the conventional sense. The political map may chart the boundaries of 50 states plus the District of Columbia, but victory requires a successful outcome in only a handful of battleground states and only a smattering of precincts within those territories. Run a successful micro-campaign and you win, or "lose Ohio, lose the race", as the equation latterly became for Romney.

This political reality will not have been lost on the longlist of candidates who are already being pushed to the front of the stage by Republican Party activists keen to reclaim control of the White House in 2016.

Several of those names are familiar: Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin, Condoleezza Rice and Jeb Bush are all considered credible candidates. Several others are relative long shots: Marco Rubio is young and would help his party tap into the now-vital Hispanic vote. Both Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal are viewed as governors to watch in New Jersey and Louisiana, respectively, while Scott Walker is also deemed a strong performer in Wisconsin. The campaign to find the man to represent the party will begin in earnest in two years' time, after congressional midterm elections condemn Obama to "lame duck" status in the White House.

That there is even a tentative discussion about such matters only days after the conclusion of the most expensive election ever shows the time is ripe to calm the incessant hum of campaigning. Currently, the beauty of the election system in the US is also its biggest undoing.

The gladiatorial nature of campaigning encourages spending on an industrial scale and effectively condemns the US to a long period of stasis. The campaign becomes more important than the issues being debated.

A far better solution would be to cap expenditure and cut the amount of time candidates can spend on the road (like in many other parts of the world), allowing both Congress and the president to get on with the business of rescuing the world's largest economy.

Not only would that break an endless cycle, it might also stimulate some fresh thinking about America's many problems.

* Nick March