The Phileas Club 74 – Making Sense of the US Election


On this episode we talk about:

  • The hows and whys of the 2016 US presidential election

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  1. Lorenzo says:

    Words cannot describe how much I appreciated listening to this episode. Wendi Dunford rocked.

  2. Maurice Singleton says:

    Patrick, just finished listening to the latest podcast. One of the things you mentioned is the difference between the American and French election systems. The American system essentially does have two rounds — the party primaries are the first, with the national election being the second. The difference is that the US in effect has two parties, but within those parties are multiple constituencies: The Democrat party typically represents the labor unions, many minority groups, environmental groups, socialists, The Republican party typically represents social conservatives, pro-defense, laisse-faire capitalism,

    Of course this often causes rifts within the parties. For example, in the Democrat party, the labor unions were pro Keystone pipeline for the jobs it would create, but the environmental groups were anti-pipeline. Similarly, in the Republican party, the Social Conservatives are generally anti-gay marriage, while the libertarian branch is generally pro-gay marriage. Thus the coalitions that happen in many European political systems occur during the primary season within the two major parties.

    The two main parties have been changing their rules over time to try to better manage the outcomes. And I would tend to say that the changes in both parties’ rules have led to the horrific choice we have today.

    In the past, the Republican party rules typically favored the “next in line” candidate, which is essentially how John McCain and Mitt Romney were picked. The changes in the state primary timing and delegate allocations gave us Donald Trump, even though, while receiving a plurality of citizen votes, did not receive a majority of votes. Also, allowing 17 candidates in the early primaries split the votes for the traditional candidates, allowing the non-traditional Trump to prevail with pluralities.

    The Democrat party introduced “super-delegates” a few years ago, which are essentially elected officials and party loyalists. This definitely influenced the primary in Hillary Clinton’s favor (even though she received a majority of the non-super delegates and a super-majority of the super-delegates). Many of the party officials, who schedule the debates and other primary events, also appear to have been “in the tank” for Hillary.

    You also have to understand the Electoral College system. Each state delegation is ruled by the “winner take all” rule. Thus the person with the largest vote count gets all of the state’s delegates. The count of delegates per state is the number of Representatives (which are based on population) plus the number of Senators (two per state). So the most populous state, California, has 55 delegates, while small states like Wyoming only have 3. Many states are reliably Democrat or Republican, such as California, which in the recent past always votes Democrat, so it’s 55 delegates will all go to Clinton, even if the vote is 51% Clinton to 49% Trump. That’s why you will see the campaigns focus on the “swing states” like Ohio (18 electoral votes) and Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes), because flipping that state from one party to the other would be a net change of 36 or 40, respectively. A total of 271 electoral votes are needed to win the electoral college. The Constitution does state that if no one receives 271 electoral votes, then the selection of the President goes to the House of Representatives. But in order for this to happen one of the third party candidates (Constitution, Green, Libertarian, etc.) would have to win one or more states and this won’t happen.

    • Thanks for this very interesting update. I often wonder what would happen if the entire US voted as one “region”… Are there any estimates on that? Would it become more decisively Democrat or Republican?

      • Maurice Singleton says:

        Given today’s demographics, the Democrats would always win the presidency (assuming typical voter turnout). The electoral college provides additional leverage due to each state having 2 electoral voters (number of senators) plus the number based on population (number of congressmen/women). So, California with a population of 38.8 million has 55 electoral votes, versus Wyoming with a population of 580,000 has 3 electoral votes. So the ratios are 1.42 vs. 5.17 electoral votes per million citizens, respectively. And since the smaller states tend to vote Republican, they are “over-represented” in the electoral college.

      • patrick says:

        Right… Well there could still be a two turn system then, with a per-state basis, so the smaller parties would have an influence in each state?

  3. Magda Campo says:

    No, Patrick they will not vote like Europe. Voting in the US is complicated. This is the way they chose to do it unfortunately.

    • patrick says:

      Well yes indeed, but my question was more about “wouldn’t it be better if…” And “couldn’t it be changed?”

  4. I just wanted to say what a great episode the latest Phileas Club was. It was a fantastic combination of ideas and voices.

    I consider myself to be an independent (maybe a slightly left leaning libertarian if you had to put a label on me, but I do have some right leaning tendencies too).

    About the whole Hillary / Trump divide.  Here is my take.  I would have voted for Bernie Sanders if he had become the Democratic nominee.  I will likely vote for an independent candidate now.  Others, who feel as I do and do the same, will likely split the vote from the democratic party lines.

    Why I won’t vote for Trump.  He’s a blowhard.  I think he says crazy things because he knows how the media works.  He is a product of reality TV and knows that on shows like Survivor or Big Brother that the wacky ones (or the ones you hate) get the most attention.  And we live in an attention economy.

    I think Wendi had a great point.  Trump talks crazy, but might just move to the middle, as history has shown with most presidents. (Recall, in the past he’s mostly been a democrat by word and deed prior to jumping into politics).  In either case he is an unknown (politically).

    Why I can’t vote for Hillary.  Let’s face it, Brian nailed it.  She did stuff that any normal person (in the 99%) would have been fired and gone to jail for.  She lives in that place where different rules apply (and she knows it), this whole culture of a segment of elites/CEOs/politicians who get to fail upward.  With the whole DNC wiki-leaks reveal too, we see that this behavior is systemic to the party itself.  I just can’t, in good moral conscience, reward that kind of behavior.

    Here too, we already had the Bill/Hillary white house for 8 years back in the 90s.  We know what to expect.  They’ve both skirted legal issues before and have been less than moral about it. There’s a long standing debate in academia about the need or not of morality in politics.  But for myself, the big issue is honesty.  And this political season, I just can’t believe in anything it seems.

    So what do I do, I can vote independent, which likely splits the vote (or throws my vote away as some would say) and can help to a Trump win. I can stay home, which likely has the same result. Or I can vote Hillary, as a least-worst option, but in doing so I throw my own sense of ideals out the window and I help validate the system that lets absconding politicians succeed. Gaaaaah! >_<

    I also have family members, who are long standing democrats, who are going with Trump because they are fed up with the political shenanigans of Hillary and the Democratic Party.  My jaw drops.  It’s such a frustrating year to be sure.

    Anyway, again, an excellent and thought provoking episode.  Kudos to Patrick and all the guest hosts. 🙂

  5. Matthias Keller says:

    Another great episode of the Phileas Club. I like the calm and objective discussion and especially that it was not all focused on Trump 😉

    Wendi’s expertise provided very interesting insights and also made up for the fact, that there was no „real“ Trump supporter by explaining the motivation/thinking in supporting Trump. But it still might have been interesting to hear someone from the Trump camp (or maybe a Bernie supporter) first hand.

    I would somewhat disagree with Brian’s assessment that the US hasn’t had as many wars compared to the Europeans though. It is true that the political system has survived for a long time but there have been enough wars with US participation in the 19th century alone, not to mention the devastating civil war that split the country in two for a short period of time. But that is just a side note 😉

    I also wanted to comment on Patrick’s idea of “fixing the system”. While I know that the remarks of making it more like the French system were not that elaborate, I still want to point out that there are many traps when trying to change an existing political system. Whenever you change (even small) parts of a political system you risk upsetting the established balance or may cause unintentional side effects. Even though your intentions might be good the actions taken might cause exactly the opposite of the intended effects. A good example for this is Israel in the 1990’s: To provide more stability and counteract the fragmentation of the Knesset they changed the constitution and decided on a direct election if the prime minister. This had (rather predictably) the exact opposite effect and cause so many problems that they reverted to the previous system after three terms.
    I’m not saying that you can’t (or shouldn’t) change the way the US President is elected (especially since the fundamental ideas of the electoral college are largely based on the situation in the 18th century and have many flaws). I’m just saying you need to be careful if you want to do that, even though this part of the system might not cause a lot of problems. (But comparing it to France is a little bit problematic since France has a semi-presidential system which is a bit different). This just as a side note to what was already discussed in the episode.

    Again, I really liked the episode and I think you all really made sense of the US elections 🙂
    (also I just love the facts and trivia the “infuriatingly neutral” Tom always brings in)

    • patrick says:

      Yeah, I guess you’re right on the unintended consequences indeed. It’s just that I have a feeling people are fed up with the system the way it is (and Trump is campaigning on that), but then when asked how to change it they retreat a bit, which seems contradictory. Still, good point which I didn’t really think about…

  6. Hey Patrick, great episode, though after watching this weeks DNC convention I wish you had waited one more week to get both sides. Also I keep hearing people talk about Hillary’s email scandal yet they don’t clearly articulate it Hear is an article that goes through it I think you should give it a read.

  7. I think you let an interest in balance blind you to a common myth. Liberals aren’t notably more likely to reject vaccines. The relevant section starts on page 29.

    Separate from that there is not a single election system in the US. Each state sets their own procedures for selecting their electors. Right now that means 48 states have a winner take all, single round election. Maine and Nebraska use a congressional district apportionment system. In theory this means that one electoral vote for victory in each district, with the two remaining votes going to the popular vote winner. In practice that hasn’t mattered, because the popular vote winner has swept both states since the introduction of their systems. Technically there is no requirement to even have a popular election. The last time it was done was in the 1870s, but it is possible for a state legislature to simply assign electors.

    This really was a great episode.

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