Entrance fee in the race to be US President: $20m

Click to follow
AMERICAN COMMENTATORS are already licking their chops in anticipation of next year's presidential election, with some claiming that it will be the most significant for a generation. But the dirty secret of American politics is that the system for filling the most important job in the world is rotten to the core. Once every four years electricity pours into the geriatric Frankenstein's monster called the race to the White House, and it splutters into life, terrifying us all. The electricity, of course, is money.

It is obviously the business of Americans how they choose their leaders, and there is a natural resentment against foreigners, especially snotty Brits, who point out that the American presidential election system is as ludicrously out of place in the 21st century as clipper ships and wagon trains. But as the Democratic and Republican front-runners, Vice-President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W Bush, limber up at the start of their campaigns, some 18 months before the general election date, the stakes could not be higher for America and also for the rest of us.

In November 2000 Republicans could lose control of both houses of Congress, and the next president will even have the chance to change the ideological balance on the Supreme Court for years to come. The Washington Post's highly respected commentator David Broder suggests that the year 2000, like the election of Kennedy in 1960 and Reagan in 1980, will be a contest of truly big ideas, possibly resulting in a seismic shift in American leadership. Maybe. But the political system itself is not about big ideas at all. It is only about big money.

The entrance fee for this presidential election is to have $20m on the table. Gore and Bush have it. Other candidates do not. That, above all, is why these two men will win their party nominations, unless some unforeseen disaster strikes. Money, often described as the mother's milk of American politics, is more like its mother's ruin. The pursuit of campaign cash for the 1996 election led Al Gore to solicit funds even in a Buddhist temple. It led President Clinton to turn the White House into the world's most prestigious bed and breakfast guesthouse.

The theory behind the presidential election system looks sensible and democratic, but the way it works in practice is exactly the opposite. The basic idea is that state by state around the country, beginning in February or thereabouts of an election year, ordinary voters have a chance to look at a whole range of candidates. They choose which man or woman they would like to represent their party in the general election in November 2000. This system has allowed obscure local politicians such as Georgia's Governor Jimmy Carter or Arkansas' Governor Bill Clinton a chance to shine in areas where they were not well known. Carter and Clinton built up momentum and became national figures. So far so good. These state-by-state elections to choose the party's nominee are either "primaries" or "caucuses", but the way they operate looks increasingly daft in the television age. What really happens in practice is that the only primary results that matter are the first half dozen, traditionally the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, and perhaps a couple of other states such as South Carolina.

Lovely though these states are, they are not big, especially important, or representative of anything much except themselves. By the time these first states go to the polls in February and early March, the money dries up for all the candidates who do not look like winners. The US media announces who is likely to triumph, and in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the anointed winner becomes the real winner. In fact all the really important states - California, New York, Illinois, Florida and Texas - do not count. The year 2000 election will be even more bizarre than usual because in a bout of competitive lunacy, states are moving their primary ballots earlier and earlier. The most important, California, has moved up from the summer to the spring. Michigan has moved up by a month to 22 February. That has squeezed South Carolina, so it plans to move up to 19 February. New Hampshire has a state law requiring that its primary is the first in all of the United States. It is therefore also thinking of moving earlier, from 15 February to 8 February. Then we get back to the Iowa caucuses. They may have to come forward to January.

New Hampshire is even said to be considering leapfrogging again to before Christmas. This looks like madness, but everyone wants to exert as much influence as possible by being early. Besides, in the bone-chilling north American winter Iowa and New Hampshire also benefit from tens of millions of dollars from journalistic and political tourism at the least attractive time of the year.

Now, if all the significant primaries and caucuses are crammed into a few short weeks, as will happen this time, then money to buy television advertising is even more important than before. Only very well-financed campaigns such as those of a Gore or a Bush, or a multimillionaire such as Steve Forbes, will be able to pay for TV commercials more or less simultaneously in, say, New Hampshire, Michigan, California and South Carolina. But the really weird bit is still to come. Each state sets its own voting rules.

In some US states only voters who are registered as Democrats can vote for Democratic candidates. In other states Independents can vote for Democrats or Republicans. In still other states even Republicans can vote for the Democratic nominee, and vice versa.

Confused? You will be. Once the votes are counted, some states divide the vote proportionally between candidates. Others have a winner-takes- all system. When you add it all up. the method of choosing a president bears as much relation to Nineties super-efficient American society as do living in log cabins and churning butter by hand. It is utterly bonkers and profoundly expensive, and it floats on a sea of increasingly funny money. No wonder that fewer and fewer Americans take part in the electoral process. In the dreary 1996 general election, less than half the population bothered to turn out to vote.

As it happens, both George W Bush and Al Gore are thoughtful politicians. If they emerge as their parties' nominees, as looks likely, we may well have a campaign of big issues, big ideas and big-minded politics. But whoever is elected, one of the biggest ideas of all would be to fix the rotten system itself.

The writer is a presenter on BBC News 24