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The mother of all American elections

For true fans of politics as a spectator sport, the American presidential elections of 2008 have already emerged as a classic.

Photos: Agencies

Who will it be? The Democratic nomination is a close call.

For anyone who is a true fan of politics as a spectator sport — the sheer pleasure of watching the democratic process, with all its dramas and unpredictabilities, unfold — the American presidential elections of 2008 have already emerged a s a classic. The spectacle of the world’s oldest democracy engaged in the quadrennial act of electing its chief executive offers virtually unlimited fodder for political junkies, but this time it has been truly special.

The great elections of history are always watersheds — in India’s case, the 1952 elections, because they were the first; the 1977 elections, because they ended the era of Congress Party dominance; and arguably the 1989 elections, since they established the pattern of governmental alternance and coalition rule that have come to define our national politics ever since. In the last century, the U.S. can point to its 1932 election, which ushered in the FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] Revolution and the “New Deal”; the 1960 election, which brought, with JFK [John Fitzgerald Kennedy], the handing over of the torch to a new generation of Americans; and perhaps the 2000 elections, the first to be settled by the Supreme Court, which launched the U.S. on a radically different path at home and abroad. But the 2008 elections promise to be a watershed irrespective of the governmental policies that will follow its outcome, for the contest itself marks the first time that one of the two major parties looks likely to nominate a candidate from a group that has never had a nominee before. The Democratic candidate will almost certainly be either a woman, Hillary Clinton, or a black American, Barack Obama — in a country where in 220 years of elections, the world’s oldest democracy has never elected a President or a Vice-President who isn’t white, male and Christian.

Prolonged Test series

And what a contest it has already been! This was the first election since 1952 in which there wasn’t a candidate in the fray who was either an incumbent or former President or Vice-President. I once observed that if other countries’ elections are like a Test match, the U.S. elections are like an entire Test series, with an ODI tournament thrown in. The multiple exercises in balloting — primary elections, caucuses, conventions, the actual elections, then the Electoral College — mean that the electoral process takes longer than any other democracy, produces far more candidates and gives you almost unlimited opportunities to enjoy the roller-coaster ride. This electoral cycle, to extend the cricketing metaphor, has been more like a World Cup, with 10 Republicans and eight Democrats actively contesting the State-by-State caucuses and primaries that lead to their parties’ nominations. At the beginning no one would have predicted the semi-finalists who have emerged. Six months ago, the Democratic race seemed to be between Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with Hillary Clinton holding a commanding lead in all the polls. Today, she is locked in a neck-and-neck contest with a youthful, first-term black Senator whose chances had been written off by every pundit. On the Republican side, six months ago John McCain’s campaign was in such disarray that there were reports that he would pull out altogether. The contest seemed to be between the former New York Mayor and anti-terrorism hawk, Rudy Giuliani, who for months led in nationwide polling and who seemingly had a lock on the national security-minded gun-toters who are so influential in the Republican Party, and the former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney, who looked the most “Presidential” of the pack and had the most money. Today both are gone, McCain is virtually certain to claim the nomination — and his only remaining challenger is a folksy former Arkansas Governor from a town called Hope (the same town as Bill Clinton), Mike Huckabee, who has the strong backing of Christian evangelicals, social conservatives and blue-collar Republicans.

Head to head

Huckabee, though, is running out of steam (and money), though he continues to win primaries in southern States, it is a reasonably safe assumption that McCain will be the Republican nominee, though he is detested by the party’s far-Right wing for his maverick independence and his willingness to work with Democrats. On the Democrat side, there are no safe assumptions. A candidate must win 2,205 delegates to capture the Democratic nomination. According to the Associated Press’ tally as of Sunday night, Clinton has 1,125 delegates pledged to her and Obama has 1,087. By the time this article appears in print, these numbers will have changed, with Tuesday’s primaries expected to put Obama ahead. Hillary has already replaced her campaign manager with a black woman, but this does not necessarily signal last-ditch desperation: if she does well in the big States that have yet to vote (Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania), she could still win the nomination. In Texas, with a large number of Hispanic voters (who have historically tended to see themselves in competition with blacks), Hillary is far ahead; Obama will have to fight hard in the other two big States, though the momentum in February is clearly with him. Even that doesn’t tell the whole story: their semi-final could still end in a tie, since there is a risk that neither of them might emerge from the remaining primaries with a majority of delegates. In that case the nominee will have to be chosen by the party convention in Denver in August. This has not happened within living memory: for half a century now the conventions have merely ratified the pre-ordained results of the primaries. No wonder the political junkies are licking their chops. 2008 is already proving to be a landmark contest — as Saddam might have said, the mother of all American elections.

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