In the midst of the presidential election primaries in spring 2016, I travelled to Las Vegas to watch Republican candidates on the stump vying for Nevada’s votes.
After witnessing Marco Rubio whip up support in a tent on the outskirts of the city promising a “New American Century” and raging against the Iran nuclear deal, I went to see billionaire casino magnate and major Republican donor, Sheldon Adelson, in his office in the Venetian Hotel and Casino at the heart of the Las Vegas strip.
Adelson’s Venetian resort comes complete with replicas of Venice’s St Mark’s Campanile, Palazzo Ducale and the Rialto Bridge. It’s a vast complex with more than 4,000 luxurious hotel rooms, a huge casino under Renaissance-themed frescoed ceilings, a glitzy shopping arcade, more than 20 high end restaurants and – as it’s Vegas – a river complete with gondola rides.
Adelson’s office was in a plush, but pretty modest suite off the main gaming hall of the casino protected by a single, unsmiling security guard. When I was ushered in, the octogenarian tycoon was alone, eating the last mouthfuls of lunch, sitting in a luxurious tan leather executive chair at the end of a long, polished mahogany boardroom table. I sank into the deep cream carpet as I walked across the room to meet him. The wood panelling behind the conference table was covered with more than 40 framed magazine covers featuring Adelson himself. A younger Adelson was smiling down from Forbes and Fortune. The wall opposite was full of photographs of Adelson’s family. Hanging from the ceiling like some aviation museum display were numerous scale models of Adelson’s private collection of jets. I had entered the world of the unimaginably rich.
Adelson was softly spoken, but with a razor focus. I wanted to find out who he was planning to back in November’s presidential election. When we finally dived into politics, he didn’t sound impressed by any of the Republican candidates. He admitted that Donald Trump was feting him. But Adelson wasn’t convinced he was the right man for the job – he talked at length about Trump’s failed casino business in Atlantic City and his lack of understanding of international affairs. In the end, Adelson said he would back whichever candidate would most support Israel and recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He described how his father, a Lithuanian Jew, had been forced to flee 1930s Europe ultimately to emigrate to the US after a short period in Wales where he had met Adelson’s mother. He was close to Netanyahu and the Israeli right, and particularly scathing about the Palestinians and the prospects for a negotiated peace and the creation of a Palestinian state. Obama’s policy towards Israel had been “shameful”, he said.
Adelson and his Israel-born wife eventually donated $82 million to supporting Donald Trump and other Republicans vying for election to the House and Senate in 2016 – three times more than any other billionaire donor. Adelson’s cash undoubtedly changed longstanding US policy; the Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017 and ordered the US embassy to move from Tel Aviv, despite widespread concern amongst America’s closest allies about the impact on regional security and a long-stalled peace process. Under President Trump, US policy towards Israel’s nemesis – Iran – has grown ever more hawkish too. In the US political system, money talks.
With one year to go before the 2020 election, the impact of money on the US political system raises serious questions about just how democratic the process will be. But money is not the only thing to worry about as thoughts turn to November 3 next year. Who gets to vote, where their votes are counted and how ballots are ultimately tallied up to determine the results will all influence the election outcome – with largely unregulated activity on the wild west of social media further compounding the problem. Is the US now a democracy in name only? To try to answer the question, let’s start with money.
The amount now spent on US elections to influence voters and shape future US policy is eye-watering and growing. Total spending on the Presidential election and Senate and Congressional races in 2016 reached $6.4 billion – 114 times more than Britain spends on a general election, in a country with just five times the UK population. A single Senate race in Florida now costs significantly more than a UK election. More than 25% of the total was spent by outside groups – corporations, trade associations, unions, single issue organisations like the National Rifle Association and wealthy individuals – seeking to sway voters towards the candidates who would most protect their interests and to shape the future administration’s policies with the scale of their support. The money often funds brutal TV and internet adverts which target candidates personally or their policies – stoking up fear on emotive touchstone issues like gun rights, religious freedom, immigration and crime, often with little reference to fact. There are no limits to what outside groups and individuals can spend as long as they don’t coordinate directly with candidates or their official campaigns. In an even more sinister development, a growing proportion of US election spending is now ‘dark money’ where the sources of the contributions don’t even have to be revealed under US election law.
From one perspective, this is the definition of democracy – everyone can get involved in US elections and have their say. But the vast majority of Americans don’t, because they can’t afford to. And so the field is left open to big industry interests, individual billionaires, wealthy single issue advocacy organisations and religious groups. The more money you have to spend, the more you can influence US election outcomes and future policy.
Social media is compounding the democracy deficit in US elections. Wealthy corporations and interest groups are able to amplify their messages across social media platforms to influence voters with little formal oversight of what they are doing or how much they are spending. Malign foreign powers can all too easily do the same. Russia’s efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favour through social media are now undisputed. US election laws like many others around the world simply haven’t kept up with the new technologies to fight back effectively.
In 2018, I visited the Alliance for Securing Democracy – a small, bi-partisan non-profit organisation in Washington DC set up after the 2016 US election to counter the efforts of state actors seeking to undermine US democracy. I learned how Russia had cleverly played on growing divisions in American society to spread their propaganda and found an unwitting ally in the increasingly partisan US media. Stories created by Russia’s intelligence services were routinely released on social media to feed the divisions in American society, suppress certain voter groups more likely to support Hillary Clinton and increase distrust in US institutions. Existing stories were amplified where they fit Russia’s agenda to anger, provoke and divide voters. The Alliance explained how the stories were first picked up by fringe US blogs, but quickly found their way onto populist websites like Breitbart or InfoWars from where they moved onto cable TV like Fox News and became “mainstream fact” and widely reported. We will never know how far Russian activity skewed the 2016 election result. But in the absence of any real sanction for their behaviour, we can be sure that Russia and others will interfere again in future elections.
As we head towards 2020, the big internet companies have made some efforts to remove fake accounts as they come under growing pressure to stop foreign exploitation of their platforms. Just last month, Facebook announced that it had removed four networks of accounts – three from Iran and one from Russia – for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, with the Russian activity focused on the 2020 presidential election and reminiscent of its 2016 campaign. But the scale of the challenge is enormous given the numbers of social media users and the changing tactics of foreign actors to stay ahead of the game. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has admitted the company “can’t stop the interference by ourselves”. At the same time, the Trump administration has tried to avoid focusing on the issue for fear of undermining the legitimacy of the president’s 2016 election victory. The president himself has weaponised his Twitter account to whip up his base and attack his opponents with little concern for fact. So the scene is set for social media to again be a key player in the 2020 elections with few real constraints on how it can be manipulated to distort the election outcome.
Even before campaigning starts in earnest, flaws in the US electoral system itself raise questions about how democratic the election will be. Neither party has been averse to pursuing patently undemocratic actions to increase their chances of winning elections. In the run up to the 2014 midterms, I spoke to the CNN bureau chief in Washington – a self-confessed election nerd – about the upcoming elections. He started by showing me a long, thin, snake-like shape printed on a sheet of paper and asked what I thought it might be. When I couldn’t answer, he explained that it was the 12th Congressional District in North Carolina.
It had been drawn by the Republican-controlled State legislature, and purposefully hugged the I-85 interstate corridor to capture as many minority voters – largely African Americans – in one voting district as possible. The aim was simple, to wrap up likely Democratic Party supporters in one place, reducing the chance that other districts could be turned ‘blue’ and so ensuring Republican control of the state. The bureau chief presented another shape – this one more like a twisted praying mantis. It was the 3rd Congressional District in Maryland drawn by the state’s Democrat-dominated State legislature to concentrate likely Republican voters in one constituency. It was blatant gerrymandering – and done by both parties.
The conversation begged the question how it could ever have been sensible for the US to allow State legislatures to determine changes to Congressional district boundaries. The ruling party then controls a process that should, in any reasonable democracy, be independently determined to prevent political manipulation. North Carolina’s 12th district was redrawn after a Supreme Court ruling in 2017 that the boundary amounted to illegal, racially-motivated gerrymandering. But in June this year, the Supreme Court refused to rule on redistricting in North Carolina and Maryland more broadly, arguing that partisan redistricting was a political, not judicial matter. The court split 5-4 on partisan lines, with the liberal judges dissenting. The decision leaves numerous districts across the country gerrymandered for the 2020 election, which will undoubtedly distort the results of some Congressional races.
If that weren’t enough of a threat to US democracy, not all Americans entitled to vote get the chance to cast their ballot. In recent years, a growing number of largely Republican-controlled US states have introduced legislation making it more difficult for Americans to vote, with many of the measures having a disproportionate impact on minority communities. Florida bars ex-offenders from voting unless they get a pardon from the governor of the state, which is very slow in coming. Estimates suggest this affects around 1.5 million potential voters, about one third of whom are African Americans. North Dakota has introduced a full residential address requirement for registering to vote when thousands of Native Americans living on reservations in the state only have a PO Box Number. Ohio automatically removes voters from the electoral role if they don’t vote in two elections and fail to reply to a postcard to confirm they want to stay on the register. Other US states make it difficult for out of state students to vote while at university. The states argue the measures are needed to prevent election fraud. But with few proven cases of voter fraud across the US, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they are politically motivated; to reduce the voting numbers of those who might support the opposition.
When the votes are finally counted, the process by which the US president is elected also distorts the election result. The president is not elected by direct, popular vote, but instead by a limited number of electors in each state – the Electoral College. To secure the presidency a candidate must win a majority of the electors nationwide, or at least 270 out of 538 votes. The number of electors allocated to each state is biased towards less populous parts of the country with 4% of the US population in small states getting 8% of the electoral college votes. The system also tends to exaggerate results. In all but two states, whoever wins the popular vote is awarded all the electors. States which consistently vote for one party can effectively be bypassed in presidential election campaigns as each candidate already knows which way their electors will go. But if a candidate loses a state by a fraction of a percentage point or just a few hundred votes, all the electors are still given to their opponent. The selection of the US president is therefore determined by a handful of swing states and sometimes by a very small number of votes.
The road to 2020
The contest for the Democratic nomination is already underway, with a large field and no compelling candidate. The real contest starts with the Iowa caucus on Monday 3 February.
Former vice president Joe Biden is trying to position himself as the centrist candidate who can take back older, white working class voters who were drawn to Trump in 2016. But he is seen by many Democrats as uninspiring and with a problematic record.
From the progressive left, Elizabeth Warren seems to have overtaken Bernie Sanders, but both may struggle to attract Republicans frightened about the idea of socialism. A group of others are trying to position themselves as a credible alternative to the radical left and safe centre: Pete Buttigieg, the gay, married, small town mayor from Indiana; Beto O’Rourke, the Texan former punk guitarist whose failed senate race in 2016 became a rallying point for young Democrats; Kamala Harris, black, female and a former state prosecutor who has impressed as an interrogator of conservatives on Capitol Hill.
Donald Trump looks likely to face a primary contest against three little-known rivals, Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh and Bill Weld. George HW Bush was the last incumbent president to face a serious primary challenge – he came through that, but lost to Bill Clinton in the presidential election.
Here are some key mile-markers for 2020:
3 February: Iowa Democratic caucus
11 February: New Hampshire primary (both parties)
29 February: South Carolina Democratic primary
3 March: Super Tuesday (primaries in several states, including California)
13 July: Democratic convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
24 August: Republican convention in Charlotte, North Carolina
3 November: Presidential election
On the evening of 8 November 2016, I watched the presidential election results coming in at the Washington Post’s sleek new headquarters, funded by a large cash injection from Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos a couple of years earlier. At the beginning of the evening, there was a positive buzz around the place. Flamboyantly costumed waiters and waitresses were circulating with sparkling Californian wine and canapes from some of Washington’s best restaurants. As polls were closing around the country, all pollsters, including Donald Trump’s own team were predicting a Clinton win. And so, this largely Democratic supporting city was quietly confident. Few of the guests were showing any interest in the results coming in via CNN or Fox News beamed onto huge screens on every wall around the offices. The electoral college system pretty much guaranteed the results in most states.
I found myself distracted by the Florida results as they started to trickle in mid-evening. Donald Trump was showing an early lead in this key swing state after a small percentage of the votes had been counted. I remember asking a Republican pollster what Trump’s early lead meant. The pollster told me confidently that the first results came from rural areas of the state which tended to lean Republican. But once the results from urban centres started to come in, Clinton would take the lead. With the memory of the EU referendum in the UK just five months earlier fresh in my mind, I wasn’t entirely convinced. Something appeared to be happening.
When Trump sealed victory in Florida around 11pm, securing all the state’s 29 electoral college votes, the mood of the party quickly changed. Over the next couple of hours, Clinton’s route to the White House became ever more difficult as Trump secured victories by small margins in more states, including Pennsylvania, which was supposed to have been part of Clinton’s “firewall”. By 2am, it was all but over; Donald Trump had been elected. He had lost the nationwide popular vote by 2.1% or 3 million votes but won the Electoral College vote by 304 to 227. For the fifth time in its history, the US had elected a president for whom the majority of Americans had not voted. Just 79,696 votes across three states – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – had secured Trump all their 46 electoral college votes and the presidency. Hardly democracy in action.
The 2020 election could not be more important for the future of the US after four years of a chaotic and unpredictable Trump presidency. The candidates have no option but to accept the US political system as it currently stands as they vie for voter support. But the process won’t be democratic in the true sense of the word. The Economist Intelligence Unit summed it up in January when it ranked the US as a flawed democracy for the third year running. The next US president would do well to take a long, hard look at the US political system if America is to start to rebuild trust in its politicians and institutions, and to re-establish itself as a leading Western democracy.
Even Sheldon Adelson, sitting in his Vegas casino, claims to be against individuals influencing US elections through the power of their money. But while others are able do it, he will carry on spending to try to ensure his views win out.
Elizabeth Warren seems to have overtaken Bernie Sanders as the favoured candidate of the progressive left. This New Yorker profile is a good primer.
For a glimpse of how money shapes American politics, Rolling Stone’s dive this week into the money behind one now defunct Republican fundraising group is revealing.
A former diplomat, he was deputy chief of mission at the British embassy in Washington DC from 2013 to 2018