John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Rogue candidates make riveting drama

Idiosyncratic American electoral system is a gift for Trump and Sanders.
If the world was voting I have no doubt Hillary would be the next President. Photo / AP
If the world was voting I have no doubt Hillary would be the next President. Photo / AP

Many times during our election campaigns I am glad that nobody else in the world is taking any notice. Elections are national "domestics", those embarrassing arguments that happen when people who normally rub along comfortably with each other have an angry dispute over not much at all and afterwards wonder why it seemed so important.

Americans do not have the consolation that nobody else is watching them. Their presidential elections are such compelling drama that all the world is watching. And right now I'd say the world's appalled.

America shows us more than its election campaign; it holds its candidate selections in public. The preliminary contests that other democracies keep decently private in halls open only to paid-up party members are held right out in the open there. And in many states of America nowadays the process is not restricted to registered Republicans or Democrats. People can register as "independent" and vote in whichever party's primary interests them.

That is what happened in New Hampshire this week. The turnout was unusually high. As the polls were closing, CNN showed queues still at voting stations and long tailbacks on the roads leading to them. A lot of people who seldom take part in elections at this stage turned up to vote for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

These are exactly the sort of characters that a normal party selection system would reject as ultimately unelectable. One is a national name, well known from hosting a popular television show, a wealthy, egotistical windbag who doesn't know what he is talking about most of the time. My favourite moment in the televised debates so far came when Trump narrowed his pig-eyes, jabbed with a stumpy finger and declared, "The TPP is a horrible deal - China, for instance, wins again and again."

Worryingly, I don't remember any of the Republican candidates pointing out China is not in it. But when it comes to the real election campaign, this degree of ignorance could be a disaster.

On the other side, Democrats have a different worry. Bernie Sanders knows what he is talking about, it is basically one subject and he talks about nothing else. He looks and acts like a crumpled professor who would sooner expound on a problem than discuss a solution.

It is only inside the US that you realise what an unusually fearful people Americans are.

He is right that private wealth counts for too much in US politics and, more broadly, that markets put too much wealth in too few hands, but when Hillary Clinton talks about these things you get the feeling she has one or two imperfect but practical remedies in mind. Bernie just bangs on and he has become a bore.

The one thing Trump and Sanders have in common is that they say they are not accepting money from wealthy contributors. Trump doesn't need it and Sanders doesn't want it. Sanders proudly proclaims he has received 1.3 million contributions from one million individual contributors at an average contribution of $27. It doesn't sound like nearly enough.

If the world was voting I have no doubt Hillary would be the next President. Her speech after her hiding in New Hampshire on Wednesday was the most impressive I have heard so far from a candidate of either party. It was strong, determined, confident and sensible. They say she campaigns best from behind and now she can.

The Republicans have the greater problem. Trump will never be a bore and never run out of money. Until he won the New Hampshire primary this week, few outside America had probably taken his campaign seriously. It's one thing for an outrageous entertainer to score high in opinion polls, quite another thing to turn that support into votes in a secret ballot. When Americans went into the quietness of a polling booth, I felt sure common sense would prevail.

That was supposed to be particularly true of New Hampshire, a state with a small population where face-to-face campaigning is reputed to put candidates under the close scrutiny of real people before they move on to the bigger states where the contest is mostly fought with television ads, managed photo opportunities, soundbites for the news cycle and, these days, social media.

Now that Trump has passed an electoral test, embarrassed American pundits will want to turn his campaign into something serious and respectable, a rebellion by ordinary folk against the political establishment and an expression of economic discontent. That might explain Sanders but not Trump.

Trump, in so far as he is serious, is speaking to fear. It is only inside the US that you realise what an unusually fearful people Americans are. It is the reason for their absurd attachment to guns. All the Republicans are promoting fear of China, Iran, Isis of course, Islam generally. And Hillary naturally. She's the candidate they fear can win in November.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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