"Super Tuesday" vote attracts global gaze

The race is hotting up for the White House

All eyes are focused on the United States as voters at home and abroad prepare for the crucial Super Tuesday primaries likely to identify presidential nominees.

This content was published on February 4, 2008 - 21:43

For the first time Swiss-based Democrats will be able to vote in the primary via internet, fax and post. The Republicans are instead concentrating on getting supporters overseas to register for the November 4 election.

Tuesday, February 5 is America's moment of truth when Republicans and Democrats from 24 states vote for their favourite candidate to run for president.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who are running neck-and-neck for the Democratic nomination, have generated huge interest and enthusiasm. On the Republican side, leading contender John McCain faces a tough battle against Mitt Romney.

Although an official census has never been taken, it is estimated that there are six million US citizens living outside the country's borders, 30,000 of whom are registered in Switzerland.

Regardless of how long they have been away, eligible overseas voters are entitled to have their ballots counted in the state where they last lived. And especially since the 2000 controversy over absentee ballots, both parties feel that US voters abroad can make a difference.

"Smallness is working to our advantage with the margins of these elections being so close and the country so polarised," Caitlin Kraft-Buchmann, chair of the Swiss branch of Democrats Abroad, told swissinfo. "This idea of several hundred or a thousand voters may not seem very large, but it could swing things in a big way."

Swiss primary

Kraft-Buchmann has been using the internet to whip up support, building chapters and getting people to register.

This year Democrats overseas will be participating in their own primary. As long as they have registered by January 31, they will be able to vote via internet, fax and post.

Any Democrats in Switzerland who might have missed the deadline can vote in person on Tuesday night at the Hotel Warwick in Geneva. In total, 22 delegates from abroad will be elected to take part in a national convention in Denver in August that selects the official Democrat nominee.

However, Robert Gebhardt, chairman of the Swiss branch of Republicans Abroad, which has around 250 members, called the Democrat primary vote abroad "tokenism".

"They will have 11 delegate votes out of 4,000; we find that overseas Republicans can have a greater impact voting at the county and state level," he said.

David Sylvan, a US-born professor of international relations at Geneva's new Graduate Institute of International Development Studies, was more dismissive. In general, he felt US expatriate voters only had a "relatively small" influence.

"Any US citizen who lives outside the country has the right to vote and in the primaries they can have a marginal influence on the eventual nominee. They might serve as a kingmaker if things are deadlocked. In the general election if they voted in greater numbers their votes would count in whatever state they are from."

But he acknowledged that in "special circumstances", states with large numbers of servicemen abroad or disproportionate numbers of citizens abroad could make a difference.

Crystal ball

Sylvan said it was hard to see any clear winners for the primaries – or even further ahead.

"The odds are that Clinton will hold on, but Obama is closing the gap, and if he closes it enough they will stagger on for a month or two," he said.

"If McCain holds on after Super Tuesday, I think he'll get it. But Romney still has an enormous war chest and there are lots of conservatives in the party who don't like McCain," said the professor.

"Purely on paper it looks like a strong Democratic year. On the other hand, McCain is beloved by the US news media and has the reputation of being an independent and freethinker, so he will start out in a position of strength," he predicted.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

Key facts

It is estimated that there are six million Americans living abroad.
Roughly 30,000 American citizens are registered in Switzerland (2000 statistics).
14,000 Americans are estimated to live in the French-speaking part of the country.
The world headquarters of American Citizens Abroad is in Geneva.

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Road to the White House

The candidates hoping to be elected to the White House in the presidential election take part in a series of elections known as the primaries and caucuses.

Each state gets to send a certain number of delegates to the parties' national conventions in the late summer, where each party's nominee is formally chosen - and the primaries and caucuses determine which candidate those delegates vote for.

Broadly speaking, the more voters from a given state give their backing to candidate X, the more delegates pledged to support candidate X will be sent from that state to the national convention. The size of each state also makes a difference.

Super Tuesday is the name given to the day in an election year when a group of US states hold simultaneous contests to help decide the presidential nominations.

This year the 24 states holding presidential nominating contests on February 5 will determine the allocation of 42% of the national Democratic delegation and 43% of the Republican delegation.

The Democrats convention will take place from August 25 in Denver and the Republicans in Minneapolis-St Paul on September 1. Each party's candidate is then formally nominated.

The US presidential election takes place on November 4, 2008. Voters do not, technically, participate in a direct election of the president. They choose "electors", who are pledged to one or another candidate. This is known as the Electoral College.

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