1 Country 2 States

How America’s own version of ‘one country, two systems’ will help choose a president

Paul Letters looks at how Iowa and New Hampshire – two states with very different systems – screen candidates as part of the election process before the wider public gets a say in who will be the next US leader

It’s US election year, and the next month will go a long way to naming the next leader of the world’s superpower. Presidential debates over the next two weeks take on far greater meaning, for Iowa and New Hampshire are almost upon us, where the election process for the presidency begins – and, for some, ends. It’s like the selection process for Hong Kong’s chief executive, except with a dose of democracy and lashings of campaign cash.

In Washington, the establishment currently favours Hillary Clinton on the Democrat side (as in 2008), and, for the Republicans, it’s still to be confirmed. Clinton is currently behind Bernie Sanders in polls in New Hampshire, and her lead in Iowa has narrowed: this year’s presidential race is far from predictable.

Since 1976, for both parties, every nominee bar one (Bill Clinton) has had to win Iowa or New Hampshire, or both. The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries cross-examine candidates in full view of the nation and offer those who exceed expectations a bounce in media coverage, funds and support as the process moves to subsequent states.

The rural state of Iowa is home to a large GOP religious base, hence if Texas senator Ted Cruz – the evangelical favourite – holds his own in the debates, he should win Iowa on the Republican side on February 1.

Iowans may like to think they choose their nation’s presidential nominees, but it is often New Hampshire that wields influence closer to that of a Hong Kong Election Committee selecting the chief executive. New Hampshire is a swing state, more representative of the nation as a whole. And compared to the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary is more open, not restricted to registered party voters.

Like many of the Legislative Council’s functional constituencies, the voters in a US caucus come from a narrow range. A caucus is open to the hard core of that party’s registered voters who turn up at school halls and churches to sit through long debates before voting for a nominee. Therefore – and this explains a number of Donald Trump’s outbursts – candidates need not tailor their message to the population as a whole, just to their party’s hard core. Of the entire primary process, the first two states attract around half of all news coverage, fixated on the leading candidates. Score big in Iowa and New Hampshire and there will only be one person between you and the White House.

Don’t underestimate Republican supporters who will make a choice based not on the candidate’s stance on issues, but because they see him or her as the best chance of beating Clinton. Voters naturally aligned with former establishment front man Jeb Bush will gawp at his lowly poll numbers, and thus the vicious circle is complete: many won’t vote for someone who appears certain to lose. Trump may not be the establishment choice, yet without needing to bow to party mandarins, he boasts unprecedented media coverage, boundless funding and high poll numbers.

Who would congressional candidates – for whom votes are cast on the same day as the presidential election in November – prefer to see nominated for president? Particularly in swing states, they want a nominee who’s not going to alienate voters. So more Democrat congressional candidates will favour Clinton over Sanders while, correspondingly, Republicans quietly seek a less divisive leader than Trump: Marco Rubio’s name is widely whispered.

However, the wishful thinking of the establishment pales in the face of the vagaries of people power. In 2008, Barack Obama secured a surprise victory in Iowa, while the favourite for president, Hillary Clinton, came third. But Clinton won New Hampshire and, thereafter, eight Democratic candidates were rapidly whittled down to two. Expect comparable dynamics within the Republican field this time.

No two states get to pick a president on their own. Before the wider public gets a say, Iowa and New Hampshire screen and winnow candidates, rather than single out the president-elect: two states with two different systems shorten the field for one country. In Hong Kong’s own “one country, two systems” format, we have Beijing and the business sector who perform that role – and then select the winner.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition on 14 January 2016 as Two states, two systems, one president


For more on my novel, set in Poland, Prague, Paris and London, 1939-42, see  aChanceKill.com