I’m the first to admit that politics is not my strength (there’s a reason I’m called Miss [e]Ntertainment) but being in America for the past year and a half, I’ve found it fascinating to watch how US politics plays out, and just how different it is to South Africa.
I celebrated, from afar in South Africa, when Barack Obama was elected and inaugurated as the first black president of the United States 4 years ago, and rejoiced in what it meant for the world as a whole. But from talking to friends here about their disappointments, and as more of the celebrities I report on began to voice their opinions about Obama’s administration, I became more and more interested in how it all works and what was driving their statements. And as a journalist, I’ve had to learn fast how US politics operates – although I think that’s something that takes years to understand (and even then I think very few people know!)
But there are things I’ve been working actively to get a grip on, and so, if you, like me, are keen to know exactly what this US election is all about, read on, and I will try capture my experiences here.
First off, a somewhat simplified guide to How Things Stand.
What’s happening now…
America is on the brink of the first presidential debate – the first of 3 – which takes place Wednesday night, in Denver, Colorado. It’s the first time Barack Obama goes head-to-head with Republican Mitt Romney, after months of negative campaigning, and swipes at each other from a distance. A second debate will take place on the 16th of October and the final one on the 22nd, with a vice-presidential one in the middle, between Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat (VP) Joe Biden on the 11th.
How it got to this stage…
For many months up until now, there have been debates and caucuses and all that jazz. The outcome of it all led to the Republican Convention in August – you know, the one where Clint Eastwood addressed an empty chair and chastised Obama. There, former Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney was declared the official candidate, after he had beat out the other Republican Party candidates and went through to the next round, so to speak.
The Democratic Convention – you know, the one where Michelle Obama charmed the crowd and Bill Clinton endorsed Obama for a second term – took place at the beginning of September in North Carolina, where Obama officially took on the nomination.
That brings us up to the first official Presidential Debate, just over a month before Americans cast their ballots.
So, how important are these debates really?
Depends who you talk to. They’ve become a hallmark of a US Presidential Election, and as this video from the New York Times shows, there have had two particular memorable moments that affected the election outcomes – in 1960 when the younger John F Kennedy fared better than the older incumbent Richard Nixon, and in 2000 when Al Gore appeared dismissive of George W Bush.
This time around, pundits are saying the kick-off presidential debate is shaping up as “do-or-die” time for Romney, especially because polls in the all-important swing-states are showing Obama is gaining a “sizable” lead on Romney, who’s had a really bad couple of weeks, what with his recent gaffe about 47 percent of Americans as being entitled to government handouts and his failure to “win” the TV audience from the convention.
Many believe Romney is under pressure to deliver a performance that shifts the momentum in his direction. On the other hand, Obama can’t afford to rest on his laurels; he needs to avoid anything that could cause independent and undecided voters to re-assess their support.
So what are the issues at stake?
There are a few, which I’ll mention in a follow-up post, but by far, the top concern for Americans is the economy, according to a list of 10 top issues regularly surveyed by Rasmussen Reports. The two figures most media reports keep highlighting are of unemployment – that it has remained above 8% for 43 months – and government debt, which has passed $16 trillion. Some believe Obama inherited the economic problems from previous president George W Bush, others believe in spite of this, that he made promises he hasn’t kept.
Foreign policy is edging up as an important issue too – issues in Iran, Israel and Afghanistan, together with the recent killing last month of the US ambassador in Libya, are gaining more attention in the media here and from both candidates too. And of course, there is huge interest in who occupies the White House from around the globe because the actions of a US president have international impact.
So just a reminder of how it all works again…
Each state is given a number of electoral college votes based on its population. Almost all states operate on a winner-takes-all system. Ultimately, it all boils down to winning the swing-states, or so-called battleground states, because much of the US is heavily Democrat or Republican, and therefore unlikely to change hands. There are 10 key swing states: Florida (29 votes), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), N Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4).
Get 270 votes and you’re president!
We – and American comedians – go to viewing parties to watch and see what happens.