The winner takes it all - and there are no prizes for coming in second.
The race to become the 43rd president of the United States of America will have reached a fever pitch by the time you read this. The main contenders are current vice-president Al Gore, representing the Democratic Party, and Republican Party candidate George W. Bush Junior, Texas Governor and the son of former U.S. president George Bush. The main incentive is not the high salary (about $200,000) and expense account (totalling some $170,000 a year), but the political power and prestige of leading the richest and most powerful country on earth.
The president of the United States is elected to a four-year term and may be elected to such a term only twice. He is not just a figurehead as in some countries (such as in Germany, or like Queen Elizabeth II, the U.K.'s Head of State). The American president is the Head of State, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and the only one allowed to declare war. He is also the head of government, because the post of prime minister does not exist in the U.S.
The Bipartisan Bible
The 'bipartisan' (two-party) system is regarded as sacred by most Americans, unlike in other countries where multi-party politics prevails. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party have been the two main parties since the mid-19th century.
The Democratic Party, whose symbol is the donkey, has traditionally been the party of working-class
people, ethnic minorities and liberal intellectuals. The Republicans, whose symbol is the elephant, have been associated with the conservative politics of big business and the military establishment.
Minor parties do compete, but they have little chance of success and are largely ignored by the media. This year the tiny Reform Party and the Green Party are both fielding candidates, but most of those who support their views will not want to risk wasting their votes (although the Greens may gain a sizeable minority vote in California). Thanks to the bipartisan set-up, November 7th will determine whether a Democrat or a Republican becomes president, without the need for a second round.
Two parties, of course, cannot reflect the interests of all voters of such a huge nation. Each of the parties contains factions (in other countries these might have formed separate parties). Thus there are conservative Democrats, especially in the southern states, sometimes called 'Dixiecrats'; and there are liberal Republicans, who try to appeal to academics and others not associated with big business.
The Vietnam War further changed the image of the two parties. During the 1972 election campaign, many ordinary Americans, including ethnic voting blocs, resented certain leftist elements that they deemed to have taken control of the Democratic Party - pacifists, hippies, advocates of the legalization of narcotics and pro-abortionists. These voters defected to the Republicans, and that year President Richard Nixon won a second term.
In the current presidential election campaign the Republicans, in a desperate bid to win over voters, are trying to shed their hard-nosed capitalist image and present themselves as conservatives with a social conscience. They are therefore playing down their traditional links to big business and emphasizing their alleged sensitivity to the needs of minority groups and society's have-nots.
The Democrats are speaking of morality, decency and basic family values. Gore is trying to distance himself from Clinton's infamous 'zippergate' scandal, in which Clinton not only had an illicit relationship with a White House assistant, Monica Lewinsky, but then perjured himself by denying his guilt.
In today's media-oriented times, however, political issues are often less important than putting on a good show. Americans love to be entertained, so during their conventions both parties outdid themselves in providing star entertainers and all sorts of party paraphernalia (balloons, T-shirts and other gadgets), as well as lots of multi-media ballyhoo. The conventions mark the real start of the campaign trail. This entails a busy timetable of rallies, kissing babies and handshaking with voters all over the country, from East to West and North to South and back again.
Who will win? And what then?
Before the Democratic convention, George Bush had been the front-runner. Yet after Al Gore was officially nominated by his party, he moved ahead of Bush in the popularity ratings for the first time. Still, it is bound to be a close race, and down to the very end almost anything can happen: voters are fickle creatures!
Some observers feel that Gore's choice of Senator Joseph Lieberman as a running mate may help swing the election in his favor. Lieberman, the first Orthodox Jew ever nominated for the post of vice-president, is one of the fiercest critics of Clinton's improprieties, and is known for his opposition to sex and violence in the media.
It is harder to predict the winner than predict what the new president will do once in office, because American society usually prefers a middle-of-the-road president to a radical. This is especially so now, since the United States are experiencing a time of exceptional prosperity with high earnings and low unemployment. Whoever wins the presidential election will be very careful, in order not to derail things.
As Tuesday, November 7th approaches, Americans will be reminding one another to go and vote, and influence the race to run the U.S.A. for the next four years: 'See you at the polls!'