Expatriate Americans in Rotorua are fielding questions about the United States presidential election with a mixture of astonishment and anguish.

One of the most contentious and controversial races in history pits businessman and former reality TV star Donald Trump against a shrinking field of Republican candidates.

On the Democratic side, former senator Hillary Clinton has a lead over Senator and self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders.

Locals say the race illustrates deep divisions in America, not just in politics, but in economics and race relations.


Sandy Bird, who owns Rotorua's Pilates Focus, grew up in California but has spent the past 10 years in New Zealand.

Mrs Bird said she thought Trump's candidacy was a joke at first.

"I'm quite concerned about America at the moment. I think people are so fearful over there because of 9-11 and how much things have changed."

She said her choice for president would be Hillary Clinton, although she doesn't plan to make an overseas absentee vote.

"Let's get a woman in there and see how it works out."

She said while the president was important, it was also a figurehead.

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"A lot of what happens is Congress and the Senate ... The president doesn't have the final say. It's hard to know what's going on behind closed doors ... I'm very surprised Trump has come this far."

She said Kiwis often asked what she thought of the elections, and she told them her native country needed major reforms.

"The world has changed so much and I think America needs to change with it."

Michigan-born expat John Loeffler said the biggest problem was the elections were run by big corporations with almost limitless funds to put behind their favourite candidates.

"Until we have some sort of reform nothing will change. They say as soon as you are elected in the US you are running for re-election.

"The working class guy feels disenchanted, that's why Donald Trump is so popular."

Mr Loeffler said a Democrat would win the election because the Republicans were too fragmented.

"I like what Bernie is trying to do, but I think Hillary will win as she knows the system and can probably get things done."

Gloria Zamora is another Californian living in Rotorua, but she and her Kiwi partner will pack up at the end of this month to return to the Golden State for work.

Ms Zamora said she was raised in a Republican environment while attending a Christian school, but embraced the Democratic Party by the time she enrolled at university.

She, too, backs Clinton and thinks Trump is a 'red herring' for Republicans.

"To get Republicans to vote for a white woman, you have to have somebody so grotesque against her."

Ms Zamora believes Clinton can eliminate America's budget deficit, which will benefit the world economy. She said there was not much difference between mainstream Republicans and Democrats and felt Trump, who had made divisive comments about Mexicans, Muslims and women, is feeding on centuries of racism.

"You've got a white man saying screw everything that's different than white. We're seeing middle America rise up with him saying, 'You're right, we don't want to be bombed again.' You look at America like a big company. They're doing it on purpose because they want Republicans to vote Democrat."

Ms Zamora said even her Republican friends claimed they would vote Democrat if Trump got his party's nomination.

- Additional reporting Matthew Martin
Path to the Presidency:

- Candidates must first win the nomination from their own party. Candidates must win majority support of party delegates. Each main party nominates a presidential candidate mid-year. A Democrat needs 2383 delegate votes the win the nomination; A Republican needs 1237 to win the party nomination. The number of delegates is proportional to a state's population and representation in Congress.

- votesmart.org