WASHINGTON – Americans will finally begin choosing next week among the Republican and Democratic candidates battling for their party’s 2016 presidential nomination in a series of state-by-state votes that mark a turning point in the nation’s protracted election system.
The White House hopefuls include two highly unorthodox candidates — the politically incorrect billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump for the Republicans, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, for the Democrats — both of whom are running strongly in polls of the first two states with nominating contests — Iowa and New Hampshire.
Trump has rocked the Republican political world with a personality-dominated campaign that quickly overwhelmed expected front-runner former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of former presidents.
Trump is virulently anti-immigration and has called on barring Muslims from entering the country. He boasts unspecified plans to make the United States “great again,” touting his abilities as a deal maker in the business world.
Trump is in a tight race in Iowa with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a staunch conservative. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is polling third and hopes to consolidate support among the party establishment. The rest of the field is lagging behind in single digits, including onetime front-runner Bush. Polls show Trump and Cruz locked in a very close contest in Iowa, while Trump is far ahead in New Hampshire.
Sanders has captivated younger Democrats and those in the most progressive wing of the party with his message of a bigger government that would protect Americans who are losing ground in the country as wealth continues to cluster among fewer and fewer people.
Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady, still holds a polling lead nationwide, but Sanders has nearly matched her in Iowa and has eclipsed her in New Hampshire, the tiny New England state adjacent to his Vermont home. He was elected to the Senate as an independent but votes with the Democrats.
Facing potential upsets in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton can look to the next contests in Nevada and South Carolina, where she still enjoys strong support among Latinos and blacks who make up a large segment of the Democratic base in those states. Sanders and Clinton have far out-distanced former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
The U.S. primary system that usually decides each party’s presidential nominee often skews those choices toward the candidates who voice positions that appeal to voters at the extreme ends in both parties. History has shown that turnout in the caucuses and primaries typically is dominated by the most motivated party base voters.
That reality causes problems for candidates. For example, Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 had trouble tracking back to more centrist positions in the general election.
That trend has become particularly evident this year as voters in both parties voice frustration and anger at the government and the congressional gridlock that has dominated American politics during the eight years of President Barack Obama’s presidency.
That is particularly true on the Republican side among members of the ultra-conservative tea party faction, a movement born shortly after Obama took office in 2009.
Against that backdrop, Iowa residents choose first from among the 11 major Republican candidates or one of the three Democrats on Monday, typically a frigid winter night.
By choosing first, Iowans hold outsized influence for a lightly populated state. The caucus results can winnow the field and provide momentum for the top finishers ahead of primaries and caucuses in the other states, Washington, D.C., and overseas territories that run through June.
Next in line on Feb. 9 is the northeastern state of New Hampshire, which holds the first primary election, and it too can have an impact on the campaign that far outweighs its small population.
The race gains huge momentum on the results from primaries and caucuses held on March 1, known as super Tuesday, when 14 states and one territory all cast ballots or caucus for the candidates.
The primary system is complex and, some say, arcane. It amounts to voters actually choosing delegates to the national nominating convention who are pledged to a particular candidate.
At the same time, a considerable number of delegates are appointed from among both state and national elected officials and party committees on the state and national levels. But as far back as 1980, the candidate for both parties has always clinched the requisite half-plus-one delegates, making the conventions little more than a coronation ceremony for the party candidate.
In 1976, however, President Gerald Ford, who took over the presidency from Richard Nixon following his resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal, went to the convention with a plurality of delegates but not the necessary majority. He was challenged by Ronald Reagan at the convention, but eventually won the nomination.
This year, the Republicans hold their convention from July 18 to 21 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Democrats gather from July 25 to 28 in Philadelphia.
For the Republicans, state rules vary as to whether the caucus or primary winner captures all of the state’s elected delegates. In some states, delegates are awarded proportionally, according to the candidates’ vote percentages.
Democrats, meanwhile, use proportional representation in all states, awarding delegates according to the percentage of the state vote for each candidate.
The so-called super delegates are not linked to any one candidate but hold huge power in their ability to get behind a candidate during the primary and caucus process, a sort of thumb on the scales that often helps the candidate most favored by the party establishment.