ON FOOT, TRUDGING through the early January snow, freezing in minus-10-degree misery and trying to negotiate my way across the winding traffic lanes of Dupont Circle in Washington DC, I'm accosted by a man distributing leaflets. He's wearing a giant, brown squirrel suit.
"You know you can vote for me in tomorrow's election," he cheerfully explains.
"The DC primary," he adds, sensing my understandable confusion.
I pause for a moment and take in this scene. Here's me, a visitor to an unfamiliar city, the political heart of the self-proclaimed "world's greatest democracy". The scholarship award that brought me to the United States seeks to promote mutual understanding between countries through academic exchange. The squirrel-man is a weirdo, no doubt. And with the official designation "non-resident alien" I'm not actually allowed to vote. But this seems the perfect opportunity to engage with a local inhabitant, to learn something more about the political culture in America.
"Get stuffed," I respond.
Did I mention that it was minus 10?
FOR AN AUSTRALIAN, experiencing the spectacle of the "primary" voting contests first-hand while living in the United States is a bit like taking a freshwater fish and throwing it into the sea. This kind of democratic process looks similar to home, feels similar, and yet tastes entirely different. For months, I try despairingly to understand the relentless procession that is the campaign, to follow why a win in the opinion polls can translate into a loss in the election and where sometimes defeat means victory.
The primary serves as a means of selecting a candidate. In the context of the presidential election, this involves choosing a party's nominee for the November ballot, held every four years. This US tradition of voting for the candidates and then voting for the president is far from deadly, however, as saltwater would be to a freshwater fish. Indeed, there is much to commend in these elections for elections to strengthen political practice elsewhere. Like in Australia for instance.
Some might regard this as yet another unwelcome foreign import, a further odious effect of the contentious Free Trade Agreement between the two countries. For those sceptics, an American response is quickly at hand. Henry Thoreau, the 19th-century recluse, poet and sometimes radical essayist, wondered, "Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government?" Surely not. Australia can learn from observing the US without fear of becoming a shallow imitation.
Many Americans happily admit that even they don't fully understand their electoral system. Attempts to explain usually start with the mechanics of the process. The primaries are mini-contests that pass from state to state over the first few months of an election year. Candidates, and there can be many, vie for support from registered party members. (In certain states, voting is open to all residents or locals can sign up to a party on the day.) Political pedants remind you that not all the primaries are the familiar style of elections, where voters attend polling stations, place their ballot papers in the box and are mobbed by scores of rabid journalists conducting exit-surveys when they leave. Instead, a few states persist with a "caucus" system, a process described by one bemused foreign correspondent as "a little bit like a highly politicised dinner party". Voters attend a local house in the evening to debate who is the best candidate, dividing from there into further sessions. Here, tallies of supporters are subsequently taken.
Interest in the primaries usually centres on determining the challenger to an incumbent president. In early 2004, everyone wanted to know who would take on George W. Bush. But occasionally the current occupant of the White House is challenged for the nomination from within his own party. As president going into the 1992 campaign, George Bush the First had to face down ultra-conservative crusader Pat Buchanan to hold onto the Republican nomination. At other times, if a president has already served two terms in office, the US Constitution prevents a third. Consequently, both sides of the political divide must select a candidate. This open contest empowers the grassroots of a party, allowing them first judgement on who gets to run for the nation's highest office.
Some states hold their primary on a day apart from all the others. Some cluster together and are dubbed with sporty names like "Super Tuesday", where the results of 10 states are decided together. This brings a sense of urgency to the democratic process, a frenetic energy that extends the formal campaign far beyond the few weeks of ritual politicking common to elections in Australia.
The "primary season", another of the abundant sporting references, means more of everything – more stump speeches, more advertisements, more polls, more expert commentators, more candidates, more highs, more lows, more pressure, more concessions, more victories. This extra volume doesn't automatically improve the quality of political debate. Instead, this is typical of my experience in America, which has more of everything and yet everything seems the same; a gluttonous feast where the plate is never emptied. But with so much going on, it's hard not to feel somehow connected.
THE FORMAL CONTEST for the 2004 Democratic Party nomination began on January 19 in the state of Iowa. Straight away, the electorate defied the careful predictions of opinion pollsters. Howard Dean, the former governor of the tiny north-eastern state of Vermont and the odds-on favourite to win the nomination, arrived with hordes of impassioned followers. Dean felt familiar to me – another "Howard" to anchor my political compass. It's perfect that his name is back-to-front from our own prime minister's. So are his politics.
Progressives embraced Dean. His strident opposition to the Iraq war, along with his blunt combative style, challenged the aura of patriotic diffidence clinging to President Bush after the September 11 attacks. In return, his dedicated supporters earned the unflattering sobriquet "Deaniacs". Maybe they were a bit maniacal. By exploiting the internet communications revolution, these activists created the greatest-ever political dotcom fundraising organisation to bolster Dean's bid for the presidency. Money is crucial to reach out to an electorate roughly 14 times the size of Australia's. The Bush campaign hoped to raise $US200 million for its election war chest, to saturate the airways with advertising and dominate on the hustings. In an effort to keep pace, Dean managed to accumulate more than $US40 million before a single vote for the primaries was cast.
He proved a political phenomenon, exciting (particularly young) Americans with his rebuff to the political orthodoxy. When I first heard the phrase "Inside the Beltway", I imagined some cryptic reference to junk food and Americans' ever-growing waistlines. But the Beltway is the road that surrounds the District of Columbia, the federal territory that is home to America's political institutions. With the kind of subterranean symbolism that is prevalent throughout the US, legend tells that inaugural President George Washington deliberately shaped the boundaries of the district as a square, to represent a "fair and square" federal government. Back in the mid-19th century, amid the smouldering tensions that would eventually erupt into the Civil War, the state of Virginia reclaimed the land south of the Potomac River that had divided the district. This left only a jagged northern shard to this once fair square; an outcome perhaps equally symbolic, given the capital's reputation for allowing disproportionate access to moneyed interest groups. Inside the Beltway, multitudes of political lobbyists ply their trade in influence and persuasion – the insiders looking in. Dean wanted to change all that.
But like so many of the dotcom start-up companies, Howard-dot-Dean went bust. All the people power and all the fundraising didn't help in rural Iowa. Dean came in a disappointing third. Which might have been fine – after all, Iowa is "just the beginning of the beginning" on a long campaign trail, as one already weary television reporter explained about the 50 primaries still to follow – except that Dean inadvertently shattered his presidential aspirations during his concession speech. It took just 59 words, culminating in a shriek that married together a soprano with a chihuahua.
"Not only are we going to New Hampshire ... we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we're going to California and Texas and New York. And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we're going to Washington DC to take back the White House, Yeeeeaaaagh!"
Add rising volume. A red-faced candidate. Punctuate every reference with a jabbing finger. Cue the scream. End of candidacy.
Dean's performance demonstrated what is sometimes described as the "logo-tisation of news", where one image can dominate a story. The content of the speech didn't matter. On paper, it is unremarkable indeed. But the image counts. He did not appear humble in defeat. He looked angry. Kinda crazy. Not very "presidential".
From then on, every time a political commentator spoke on television about Howard Dean, the picture of his ranting Iowa concession speech loomed large in the background. Pretty soon, voters had only that image left in their minds. Media analyst Bob Garfield explains: "The combination of endless repetition and TV's cynical willingness to deprive viewers of the context [a defeated candidate rallying the youthful delegations of many states to keep the faith] turned a media-created frontrunner into a media-bludgeoned national punchline." Dean's speech occurred on the public holiday to celebrate the life of civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King jnr, lending it an irresistible comic moniker – the "I have a scream" address.
Political pundits say that the primary process "tempers the steel" of the candidates. These intense contests test a person's abilities both for the coming "real" election in November and for dealing with the challenges of office. Many voters thought that Dean simply melted under the pressure, a fact best uncovered sooner than later. No doubt the primaries do help assess the candidates, but the relentless media attention on "winners" and "losers" also creates momentum all of its own. This scrutiny and instant judgement make it almost impossible for a candidate to recover from any mistake.
But just to prove that a political corpse is never quite dead, two weeks after Dean conceded the Democratic nomination to Massachusetts senator John Kerry and dropped out of the race, he finally won a state outright. His "gubernatorial" experience paid off in Vermont and locals wrote him onto the ballot.
(Guber-what? Look it up, it's a real word, common in the strange local political dialect that also spawned boondoggle, the famous Kim Beazley favourite, along with other wild lexical treats such as filibuster, donnybrook and boondocks.)
WITH ALL THE hoopla and frenzy that surrounds the early contests, especially Iowa and New Hampshire (the most coveted state primary that follows a week later), it is easy to believe that these votes actually decide who is to be the next US president. But this is only the start. In fact, it's just the formal beginning. The build-up is much, much longer. Another failed Democratic contender in 2004, former general Wesley Clark, was criticised for joining the race too late even though he declared his interest in September 2003, still 14 months before the presidential election. Candidates need public stature to weather the US-style of politics by attrition.
This elongated process for determining candidates has other benefits beyond an early aptitude test for the hopefuls. For one thing, "long-shot" candidates who might be otherwise relegated to the margins of the contest get time in the political sun. This better demonstrates the diversity of views within a party and consequently, broadens its appeal to the general public.
There was Dennis Kucinich, a dour Mr Bean look-alike Congressman described as the far-left anchor among the candidates, sharing the stage and the national spotlight with all the major contenders for the Democratic nomination. Pundits mused loudly and indiscreetly, "Why bother, Dennis?" But like a grass seed in your sock, he stuck in there, demanding that the other candidates join him and pledge to abolish the omnipresent World Trade Organisation, get US troops out of Iraq and immediately sign the Kyoto Protocol on global-warming controls. None would, but they were forced to explain why not. This debate improved the quality of the final policy position and better informed the general public about the issues. As one former Clinton Administration official puts it, "the primaries provide an opportunity for opposition parties to get their act together". This is in no small part thanks to a robust and open discussion.
Most importantly, a rigorous contest can engage voters to take interest in politics around them. This is ever so important in a country that does not have compulsory voting. It wouldn't hurt in a country that does. Of course, some political insiders worry this can also act in reverse, where the complexities of a long drawn-out campaign desensitise all but the most enthralled political observer. This, in turn, could force candidates to adopt more and more aggressive policy stances in their effort to break through public apathy.
There is a word to describe this – "democracy". It's good fun and let's have plenty more. Without needing to mimic the US system, its experience, bad and good, could help direct improvements in the style of Australian politics. Who knows, perhaps we could convince John Howard to campaign in a giant kangaroo suit.