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Em louvor das primárias ianques

Para os europeus o sistema eleitoral americano e em particular o sistema das primárias para a escolha dos candidatos é ou um absurdo ou um mistério, dependendo do grau de conhecimento do mesmo. O artigo seguinte publicado no número de Natal do Economist poderá fazer alguma luz (nas lâmpadas que não estão fundidas).

In praise of the primaries

IT IS easy to make fun of Iowa and New Hampshire. These two states, with a combined population of 4.3m mostly white people, will soon kick off the 2008 primary season (see page 73)- and also influence the presidential race out of any possible proportion to their size. Ethanol subsidies for greedy farmers, bleak midwinter meetings in rural diners, humourless men in lumberjack shirts: all come in for their share of ribbing. What an absurd way to choose a president, sneer many non-Americans, perhaps forgetting their own arrangements (the coronation of Gordon Brown as Labour leader and prime minister, without a single vote, springs to mind).

In fact, the primaries system, once again, is working pretty well. There is a basic reason why Americans don't seem seriously interested in challenging the position of the kick-off states: in the end, it doesn't really matter which states start the ball rolling, so long as they are small. For the past four months or so, and now at a hysterical pitch, America's presidential candidates have been forced to campaign for their lives in these unlikely arenas. Slick TV ads alone will not cut it, as they must in bigger states where meeting more than a fraction of a percent of the electorate is an impossibility. Iowa and New Hampshire want their candidates up close and personal.

This imposes immense, and immensely testing, challenges. Money and organisation matter far less than stamina, agility and that most unfakeable of all political attributes, charisma. Anyone deficient will be found out: anyone with the right stuff has a chance to shine. The bruising campaign has already seen Hillary Clinton's star wane, as she has shown herself tetchy and hectoring, and her panicky operatives have been caught playing grubby tricks; Mike Huckabee, an unknown from Arkansas, has soared to recognition on the back of his folksy ability to reach out to evangelical Christians without alienating those of more restrained faith. A field of some 20 hopefuls has already been winnowed down to six or so.

What happens in these two states does not stay there. Thanks to the internet, anyone can scrutinise every aspect of the "retail politics" stage of the American presidential contest as it is played out in Iowa and New Hampshire. Gaffes, slurs, foolish e-mails, the commentaries of local papers and the blogs of humble voters are all available to the global village.

The two earliest states are not just a giant focus group; they are the first leg of a pentathlon-a competition designed to pick the best all-rounder. In their wake come Nevada (disproportionately Hispanic), South Carolina (disproportionately black) and Florida (disproportionately big). Finally, on February 5th, the presumed finale: some 20 states will hold their primaries and caucuses - a contest fought out through television advertising (a function of money-raising skills) and get vote operations (a sure test of organisational ability). Just like the athletic pentathlon, you don't have to win the first event (Bill Clinton was beaten in both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1992); but it is front-loaded. Momentum counts for a lot.

That is not to say that the primary system has no flaws. In its nostalgic moments, The Economist wishes the whole tiling still started later. In 1968 the New Hampshire primary took place in March. It is not just that the skiing is better then; a later start would stop the primaries from monopolising so much of the previous year's politicking. Ideally, the pentathlon should last longer too-giving more time for retail politics elsewhere. Iowans have their faults, notably their antipathy to farm reform. And, yes, the system can throw up duds as well as Ronald Reagan. That, though, is a feature of all styles of government. Americans will soon make a freer and better-informed choice than citizens in other democracies ever can.

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