Electoral Compass USA: Hillary’s chances

Door André Krouwel, 13 February 2008

US presidential elections go on for an eternity. The Americans spend almost a year choosing their new president. Actually there are three elections, not just one. In the first phase there are two separate elections: one in the Democratic party and another in the Republican party. The Democrats’ focus is not the Republicans. Hillary and her husband Bill attack Obama, and Obama – with somewhat more refined methods – fights back.

The various presidential candidates try to win as many ‘delegates’ as possible in each state in a ‘primary’ or ‘caucus’. These delegates will be sent to the party conventions in August and September 2008, which will elect the two candidates who will ultimately fight it out. The actual election only begins in the second phase. It is only then that the entire American population will choose either a Democratic candidate or a Republican candidate to be their 44th president.

Electoral Compass USA – sponsored by XS4ALL – has developed a website specially for these American presidential elections. Electoral Compass USA does not give voting advice; it gives Dutch and American people a more detailed view of their position in the political landscape. By responding to 36 statements on the major issues in the US elections, you can clearly see your position in the American political spectrum, along with the positions of the ten main candidates. That means you can compare your personal position in the spectrum to those of the candidates, on the issues you consider most important. Keep in mind that the US political landscape looks very different from the situation in the Netherlands.

The political spectrum in the United States can also be accurately represented by means of two key dividing lines: one on which Americans, like the Dutch, are placed from left to right. This axis relates to tangible, economic issues. These include income, tax, government intervention in the economy and the welfare state. The other dividing line relates to intangible issues and runs from socially progressive to socially conservative. Whereas in the Netherlands it is generally the left-right relationships that are more important, the dominant dimension in the US is the more moral one. The contrast is still between a progressive section of the population – mainly living on the east and west coasts, and the socially conservative Christian population of the centre and south of the United States.

The political landscape of the Electoral Compass clearly reflects the US two-party system. The two American political parties – Democrats and Republicans – are diametrically opposed. The Democratic candidates are mainly moderately left-wing progressive; the Republican candidates are generally right-wing conservative. The only exception is Ron Paul, who actually occupies the centre ground, even though he is to the right. He certainly has very divergent political views! For example, he is the only Republican in favour of withdrawal from Iraq. But he will not be involved in the final contest.

The contest among the Democrats is focused on two candidates: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. All the other candidates have now dropped out of the race. As can be seen in the spectrum, Clinton is somewhat to the left of Obama. However, despite her position as the most left-wing candidate, Clinton’s programme can also be characterised as conservative. She is simultaneously the most conservative Democrat. This position is mainly due to her conservative stance on Iran, the fight against terrorism, the death penalty and gay marriage. Obama is more progressive on all these subjects.

The Republican nomination contest is more open. There are still three candidates fully in the race. Huckabee (Iowa), McCain (New Hampshire) and Romney (Michigan) have all won previous primaries. Rudy Giuliani remained much too aloof in the first round and was punished for it. He has now dropped out of the race for the White House, so will not take part in the second round.
Giuliani initially scored very highly in the national polls, but he was unable to cash in on his popularity. The further he fell back, the greater was the support for McCain. The former Mayor of New York has now expressed his preference for McCain. Giuliani had a fairly progressive programme compared to the three remaining Republican candidates. The question is whether he would have been able to win over the important Christian South: his opinions on firearms possession (potential firearm owners should be vetted) and stem cell research are seen as fairly liberal in Republican circles. On ethical matters too, Giuliani was a progressive outsider compared to his fellow party members: he is opposed to a ban on gay marriage and against the complete outlawing of abortion. McCain is also often seen as an outsider in ‘The Grand Old Party’ (the Republican party). That is due to his somewhat more left-wing views: people who earn more should also pay more towards their own medical expenses and the government should exercise greater control of the granting of mortgages. The veteran McCain has also been tortured himself and, probably for that reason, is categorically opposed to torture. He is also in favour of legalising illegal immigrants, although he has recently rowed back somewhat from that position. Despite these divergent opinions, McCain does not emerge as much more progressive in the spectrum than Mitt Romney, because on firearms possession (he is against any tighter control) and ethical issues (he opposes gay marriage and abortion) McCain is a conventional conservative candidate. Although all Republican candidates, except Ron Paul, frequently invoke religion, it is Huckabee who plays the religious card most. His religious-right programme gives him the most conservative position in the spectrum, after Fred Thompson, who has now withdrawn.

More than 1.5 million people have already visited Electoral Compass USA, over 1.2 million of them Americans. The analyses of their answers point to three different underlying causes for voting behaviour in the US.

The main explanation for Americans’ voting behaviour can be found in religiously inspired nationalism. Americans believe they are living in God’s Own Country, and that is reflected in the results. A right-wing nationalist dimension dominates. The main features of this world view are a preference for a strong US army, American interventionism in the world and a firm fight against terrorism. Another important explanatory factor lies in opinions on immigration. Many Americans favour a tougher approach to immigrants (no scheme to legalise illegals) and the erection of a fence along the border with Mexico. The only hope for a progressive America is the fact that a large group of voters believe the government should do something to combat poverty, redistribute wealth and make healthcare and education cheaper and more accessible.

Our analysis shows the strength of Hillary Clinton. Despite all the attention focused on the possibility of electing the first black president, Clinton simply has the best credentials to become the first female president of the United States. She has positioned herself – very strategically – as a left- conservative candidate. In this way she can beat Obama in the Democratic primary because she is intrinsically better able to secure the loyalty of the white working class and middle class and elderly voters. But her more conservative views compared to Obama also mean she is better able to win over the many Catholic Latinos – a crucial group of voters in the Southern States. An important point is that white voters in the South never vote for a black candidate who receives wide support among Afro-Americans. That is why Obama does everything he can to be as ‘white’ as possible and not to be seen as a black candidate!

But in the second round - if Hillary has to take on McCain or Romney – she will also have a strong position. On important issues she closely reflects dominant opinions among the US electorate. Clinton is the conservative ‘hawk’ in the Democrats’ midst; she promises the toughest policy against terrorism and never rules out an interventionist strategy (even on Iran). Her conservative programme sometimes makes it slightly difficult for her with progressive Democrats in the coastal states, but she makes up for that with a somewhat more left-wing policy than her main competitor Obama.

The result was evident in New Hampshire and Florida. Clinton won the most votes from the ‘traditional Democrats’, people with lower average incomes and members of labour unions. The progressive Obama won far more votes from other groups: young people, highly educated and first-time voters. Unregistered voters cannot usually vote in the first phase of the elections. Only people who are registered as Democrat or Republican are allowed to vote. That means the contest among the Democrats will involve the traditional Democrats, which will ultimately be to Clinton’s advantage.

Hillary is therefore already engaged in the second round – the real election. That is why she becomes so irritated when Obama occasionally scores well in opinion polls or a primary. As soon as Obama has finally been beaten, Clinton will therefore be able to show her true face: a fairly conservative, nationalist Democrat who for decades has wanted to build a bigger welfare state in the US. It is this combination that makes it possible for her to beat her Republican rival. However, she will have to pull in the floating voters from the – mostly Republican – central states. Of course, voting behaviour can never be predicted with certainty. But, as BBC reporter Steve Schifferes has written: ‘If the US economy continues to slide towards recession, then Mrs Clinton’s ability to revive the traditional Democratic coalition may help smooth her path to the White House.’ Hillary simply has the best credentials for the presidency.