07 Nov 2016 18:37 IST

A guide to understanding the US election

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton | Pic credit: Reuters

Read on to know why November 8 is such an important day around the world

The incredibly long US presidential election cycle for 2016 is finally coming to an end. Americans go to the polls on November 8 with the first results expected the same evening. For the millions of Indians who will try to catch the action live on TV, here’s a primer.

The candidates

The two major US political parties nominated Donald Trump (Republican) and Hillary Clinton (Democrat) respectively, to run against each other. There are two other candidates — Gary Johnson (Libertarian) and Jill Stein (Green Party) — both of whom have no chance of becoming President, but can play spoiler by luring away enough votes from Trump or Clinton in close state races to affect the outcome. In the state of Utah, for example, independent candidate Evan McMullin is polling so well that he may well defeat Trump in that state. Utah almost always votes for a Republican.

The states and the Electoral College

Unlike other major democracies, the US does not award the winner based on the total popular vote. Instead, the election is a state-by-state popularity contest of what is called the Electoral College. There are 538 Electoral College votes to be awarded, so whoever gets 270 votes, wins [The Electoral college is equal to the number of legislators that the country has in both houses, i.e. the number of representatives in the US House (438) + US Senate (100)].

If a candidate wins the popular vote in a particular state, he or she wins all the Electoral College votes of that state. For example, Texas has 38 Electoral College votes (36 House + 2 Senators). Whoever wins the popular vote in Texas, wins all of its 38 electoral votes. This principle is called “winner takes all”.

Red, blue and purple states

Every election map will invariably show the US decked in three primary colours — red, blue and purple. The red states are those that Trump will carry easily — solidly conservative regions located predominantly in the south and the mountain west. The blue states are those that Clinton will carry easily — coastal areas like New York and California, regions that are progressive and liberal.

And then, there are the purple states, also called battlegrounds. These — like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia — are fickle in the sense that they have voted for both Republican and Democratic winners in previous elections. The election will be won or lost in these toss up states.

Demographics

The US electorate has not been this divided in over 30 years. Expect white men to largely favour Trump, but white women to vote for Clinton. Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities are expected to back Clinton heavily. Indian Americans are supporting her by a 90-10 margin.

This election is ultimately a turnout contest. If Clinton can get blacks to vote as resoundingly as they did for Obama in 2008 and 2012, she will likely win in a landslide. If white men, who have never voted, or independents (those who are not loyal to either party) turn up in sufficient numbers for Trump, he could win.

Historic election

No matter who wins, this is a historic election. A Clinton victory will be trend-setting because the US has never elected a woman President before. Electing her, after Obama’s two terms, would mark a dramatic shift in America from white male dominated power to one where anyone, black or a woman, has a chance of winning high office.

But a Clinton victory would also be reversing a nearly 180-year pattern. US presidents are elected to serve for a single four-year term with a chance of getting re-elected for a second four-year term.

When a president from the same party has won two terms, Americans have almost always elected someone from the opposing party in the following election. Obama, a Democrat, will have already served two terms by the time the next president takes oath. The last time Americans elected a Democrat to succeed two-termer Andrew Jackson was when they chose Martin Van Buren in 1836 — 180 years ago.

Trump too would be making history in his own right, if he wins. He would be the first businessman with no political experience whatsoever to become president. He would also be the first person in the US history to defeat three major forces — his opponent’s party, his own party (because of his controversial statements, he has zero support from Republican leaders) and the media, which has been extremely critical of him, with 95 per cent of all stories casting him in negative light.

Other races

While the world is focused on the presidential election, there are races down ballot too which will probably matter even more. Today, the House and the Senate are both controlled by the Republican Party. If Republicans retain both chambers and Clinton wins, there will surely be a lot of gridlock including aggressive investigations into her emails and pay-for-play allegations. In effect, Washington will grind to a complete halt.

If the Democrats take the Senate and Clinton wins, she will be able to push through several liberal justices to the US Supreme Court in her first term. This could have a profound impact on the country for the next 30-40 years — cementing the country’s march to progressiveness with Obama’s election in 2008.

If Trump wins and the Republicans retain control of both chambers, they may then finally come home to him, and given that he is a complete unknown, anything, regarding policy, may happen. No one knows.

Which is why November 8 is such an important day around the world.