And they’re off! US election campaign begins

Party symbols: Trump races the Republican elephant against Clinton on the Democratic donkey.

Yesterday marked the real start of the race for the world’s most powerful job. It will probably be the most-followed political contest in history, and the most bitter. What are the risks?

It has been almost 17 months since Hillary Clinton launched her latest attempt to become president of the United States. Both of America’s major parties have since held months of debates, primaries and conventions to choose and present their candidates for November’s general election.

‘I am at least somewhat sure this presidential election has been going on since Hannibal’s elephants crossed the Alps,’ wrote Emma Roller of The New York Times yesterday. But only now, in the first week of September, has the official campaign period begun.

The next two months will be bitter. Donald Trump is an unpredictable alpha male who has no experience of elected office. Clinton, the first female nominee from a major party, is an experienced politician supported by an enormous staff and ‘the greatest fundraising machine ever’.

Polls suggest they may be the two most unpopular presidential candidates in history, and both faced stinging criticism as the campaign opened. Last week the FBI issued a report on Clinton’s ‘extremely careless’ handling of classified information. The report included evidence that she, or those acting for her, may have unlawfully destroyed federal records.

And yesterday the UN’s human rights chief compared populists like Trump to Islamic State. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein accused them of the ‘banality of bigotry’ and said they sought ‘to recover a past that in reality, did not exist anywhere, ever’.

The candidates are expected to split voters sharply by gender, age, race and education. With both sides desperate to win, engagement has risen. Activity on Facebook has quadrupled and the audience for some political debates on TV more than trebled compared to the 2012 election.

But all this has arguably polarised opinions further. Clinton has faced pressure from the far left, while Trump’s candidacy has been accompanied by the rise of the ‘alt-right’ — a disparate online movement, a few of whose participants promote white supremacist views.

Endgame

Some say the process will debase political debate. Trump is a simplistic demagogue and Clinton is an uninspiring alternative. The election is unleashing extremists and dividing voters by who they are, rather than what they believe. Whoever wins, America will emerge divided, weaker and damaged by an aggressive, negative campaign.

Ignore the pessimism, say others. Real politics is not always pretty, nor should it be. Above all it needs to be open and vigorous. Middle ground politicians all sound the same and turn people off. This race will be a chance to choose between two massively different world views. It could be the best thing that has happened to Western democracy this century.

You Decide

  1. Are you excited or worried by November’s election in the USA?
  2. Will the campaign debase political debate or strengthen it?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to someone three years younger than you who is interested in the US election. Explain why it matters and what to expect over the next two months.
  2. Find out about a previous US presidential election campaign of your choice. Write a two-page memo explaining what the most significant issues were and what candidates said about them. Was the campaign better or worse than Clinton v Trump?

Some People Say...

“At its best, democracy is a rough dust-up”

What do you think?

Q & A

I do not live in America. Will this affect me?
The USA is the most powerful country in the world. The winner of this election will make decisions affecting economic and social policies in countries much further afield. You will be affected, for example, by the ease of movement or trade across national borders.
But does it matter how tough the process of choosing the leader is?
Voting and elections in democratic countries allow people to tell their representatives what to do and to test their policies. It is a chance to discuss issues you think important and to consider how to address them. If the process is not tough enough, new leaders could be elected without enough scrutiny of their ideas. But if it is too acrimonious, it could put good people off from running for office in future.

Word Watch

September
The general election campaign officially starts after Labor Day — the first Monday in September.
Staff
The Clinton campaign employed 732 people in May and has grown since. It dwarfs Trump’s team, according to Politico.
Fundraising
Clinton had $58.5m to spend at the start of August.
Unpopular
Clinton’s unfavorability rating was 59%, and Trump’s 60%, in a poll for ABC and the Washington Post. The data was first collected over 30 years ago; the previous worst score was 53%.
Careless
Clinton stored official emails on a private server.
Destroyed
The FBI said Clinton could not find any of the 13 phones they asked for and an aide broke two phones with a hammer.
Split
CNN says 73% of unmarried women currently support Clinton. White voters without degrees back Trump by 68% to 24%.
Quadrupled
These rose from 90m to 361m — though Facebook’s daily active users doubled in the same period.
Trebled
The audience rose from 7.6m to over 24m.
Far left
This has included some supporters of Bernie Sanders, who ran against Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

Subjects

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