I arrived in Mauritius nearly three weeks ago for a holiday, a world away from the crazy and surprising developments unfolding daily in the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign. But interest in this election runs high in Mauritius, and in every social encounter I’ve had, the conversation eventually turns to two issues that Mauritians find especially puzzling: Why is the U.S. election system so confusing, and do you think Donald Trump could actually win?
The answer to the first question involves a bit of a history lesson, peppered with modern-day politics. Don’t feel bad about being confused about the differences between primary elections and caucuses, delegates and electors, and by the proliferation of televised debates that allow uncivil and outright nasty behavior by a group of people who want to lead the free world. Americans, for the most part, don’t get it either, and would have a hard time explaining how the system works. Ask further why a campaign is allowed to grind on for more than a year and to spend billions of dollars, and Americans will again shrug their shoulders in bewilderment and disgust.
This is because the United States has one of the most complex, lengthy and costly systems of selecting a leader in the world.
There are essentially two parts to a U.S. Presidential election: the nominating phase and the general election. Every four years, America’s main political parties — Republicans and Democrats — select their respective nominees through party-sponsored contests in each of the 50 states and territories (American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands). This process starts in February and lasts five months — until all regional voting is done in June.
States have two ways to collect their party members’ votes — either in a primary election or a caucus. A primary is a traditional setup, in which people go to a polling place to cast a secret ballot. These contests are financed by the state and run by state election officials. Some states have closed primaries — meaning only voters registered to a party can vote, while others have open contests, in which unregistered and independents may vote.
A caucus is quite different — it’s a neighborhood event that requires several hours of active community debate and takes place in the evening in a public place like a school gym or town hall. They are financed by the political party. Caucuses were more common prior to election reforms taken in 1972 when more states adopted primaries. Today, caucuses are held in only 14 of the 50 states.
Campaigning gets underway long before the first primary. Candidates often announce their intentions a year or more before the first primaries (Hillary Clinton was actually forming her 2016 campaign soon after she lost the Democratic nomination to Obama in 2008), and Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz kicked off his race nearly 20 months before the Nov. 8, 2016 general election date. Once launched, a campaign takes on a life of its own – hiring staff, raising millions of dollars in donations, nailing down policy positions, preparing for debates, and setting up a media strategy.
New Hampshire and Iowa start the nomination process early in the year, and then other states follow. Nevada and South Carolina just finished their contests, and on Tuesday, March 1, 11 states will vote in what is called « Super Tuesday. »
The early contests are important as they test the viability of a large field of candidates, and as we’ve seen, several that don’t do well drop out.  A total of 13 candidates – both Democrats and Republicans — have quit over the past few months. The most recent was Florida Governor Jeb Bush who threw in the towel last week after the South Carolina primary.
« Super Tuesday » primaries could be a game-changer
Super Tuesday is regarded as an important barometer of support for the remaining candidates, and it’s possible the nomination could be decided next week if a candidate polls well and reaches the required number of delegates in his party’s nomination process.
When people vote in primaries or caucuses, their votes go to delegates that are pledged to a certain candidate at the national party convention. Delegates are party activists, local politicians, and early supporters of a candidate. The parties have different rules for awarding delegates, but for the most part this is done proportionally in congressional districts based on primary and caucus results or on a winner-take-all basis. To add a bit more confusion, there are also a number of  so-called super delegates participating. These are high-ranking party and elected officials who are generally not bound to a specific candidate.
The candidate that gets the majority of his party’s delegates wins the nomination. In the Democratic field, a candidate needs 2,383 of the 4,763 delegates. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders may be putting up a big fight against Hillary Clinton, but before Super Tuesday, he trailed far behind in the delegate count: 71 to her 505. Among Republicans, 1,237 out of the 2,472 delegates are needed to seal their party’s nomination. So far, New York billionaire Donald Trump far outpaces his rivals, with 82 delegates to 17 for Cruz, 16 for Sen. Mark Rubio of Florida and 6 for Gov. John Kasich of Ohio.
Once the party has a candidate, the nominee for President and his or her selection for Vice President will be officially chosen at a national nominating convention in late July. Democrats will meet in Philadelphia and Republicans in Cleveland. The growth of  primaries and caucuses have turned conventions into largely ceremonial affairs to ratify a candidate who has already been selected by the delegate count. But the event remains important in bringing together the party faithful and launching the nominee with a unified party platform that will be used through the general election on Nov. 8.
But wait, now that you’ve got that straight, there’s more complication.When Americans go to the polls on Election Day, they will not be voting directly for president and Vice President, but instead will chose which candidates receive their state’s electors as part of an « Electoral College. » In fact, there is actually no « national election » in America as such, but rather a set of 51 separate elections in 50 states and the District of Columbia. This is why candidates focus so much attention on wining individual states, rather than a national majority.
The candidate receiving the majority of electoral votes wins. The electoral vote usually aligns with the popular vote in a state — but not always. In four elections — Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush — the winner did not receive the popular vote but won the electoral votes, and thus the election.
The magic number to watch as the results come in on television will be 270. This represents about half of total number of 538 electors nationwide — which is the sum of the country’s 435 congressmen and 100 senators and 3 electors for the District of Columbia. Like delegates, the state electors are usually locally elected officials, party leaders or those with strong ties to a presidential candidate. If no candidate gets a majority of the electoral votes, the election is decided by the US House of Representatives.
Even though the election results will be known by counting the electoral votes produced by each state after the polls close on Election Day, electors will gather in each state to officially cast their votes in December. Results will be sent to the U.S. Senate, which will announce the tally officially on Jan. 6. Inauguration of a new president will be Jan. 20, according to the Constitution.
The Electoral College is unique mechanism created by the Founding Fathers when they built a new government after the American Revolution. It was a compromise that sought to balance the power of individual citizens with that of small and large states. It would become a cornerstone of the American  federalist system of government, which gives certain important powers to the states.
Assessing the Trump factor
The primary battles have so far produced results that very few had expected. As the field of candidates on both sides has shortened, a race that was billed as a clash between establishment candidates (a Clinton – Bush matchup), could end up as either an insider vs. insurgent contest (Clinton vs. Trump), or a battle between two insurgents (Billionaire Trump vs. left wing Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.)
The success of Trump and Sanders in the primaries to date has been a spectacular achievement, as both were considered fringe candidates when they began, given little chance to capture support with their wild ideas and rhetoric. The Washington elites of both parties had expected their campaigns to fizzle and their names to fade. But the contrary has happened. Despite his age (71) and relative obscure name recognition, Sanders has found deep appeal among the Democratic party’s left and has given Hillary Clinton, who was all but anointed the nomination by the media and her own party, a true run for her money in the primaries. His success in New Hampshire and showings in Nevada and South Carolina, have humbled Hillary and forced her to retool her campaign.
The primary results also revealed a huge weakness: recent revelations about her activities at the State Department have raised questions about her honesty and trustworthiness. In addition, polling in New Hampshire and elsewhere show a surprising weakness among female Democratic voters, a bloc she will be counting on in the general election, while Sanders did well among another Clinton core group — working class white voters.
But by far the biggest surprise is the popularity and staying power of Donald Trump. He has confounded even the elite of his own Republican Party who have been looking the other way for months as his rhetoric intensified and his poll numbers skyrocketed, all the while thinking that Trump would sink himself with his brash, insulting rhetoric. This has been a big mistake.
The New York billionaire with the sharp tongue and deep pockets for spending his own money on the campaign, has won all the GOP primary contests so far, besting his opponents by huge margins, and dumbfounding his party, the media, political scientists, donors and pollsters.
Primaries are not general elections, in that they usually bring out the loyal and ideological voters of a party to vote, but the breath of Trump’s victories have many worried. In Nevada, for example, Trump won every demographic — Republican men by 24 points, women by 18 points, and a majority of voters who described themselves as very conservative, somewhat conservative or moderate. He got a big draw from Hispanic voters, despite his insults directed to them during the campaign. With the momentum of earlier caucus and primary wins, Trump is looking strong going into the Super Tuesday contests.
So why is Trump doing so well, given his racist, bellicose and often insulting speech making? He has hit a nerve among an electorate that is fearful about its economic and cultural future, that feels threatened by immigration, that worries that the United States has become weak abroad, and that is bitterly angry at the partisan divisions in Congress and at the ineptitude that they see in the federal government. Further, they say these voters are fed up with eight years of a Democratic president that has enlarged the scope of government through a new national healthcare mandate, has pandered to gay and lesbian rights, and that has not shown any mettle  against the Russians and the Islamic State.
With Trump, they have found what some political observers have coined the « Middle Finger » candidate, someone who flaunts authority, who is not beholden to special interests and who speaks his mind, no matter the consequences. These are the voices that feel that Obama’s economic policies have left them behind, that immigrants are taking their jobs, and that Democrats want to take away their Second Amendment rights to own guns.
Trump’s hubris and narcissism have been his strengths and even his outrageous comments about women, Hispanics and his political rivals have not dampened his appeal. In fact the more outrageous he acts the more his supporters love him because they feel he’s raising issues nobody else will talk about, and he expresses thoughts — loud and screaming clear — that many Americans harbor but won’t express. And although he lives lavishly in a way they could only dream of, his supporters admire his candor, entrepreneurship and wealth (and being on a successful Reality TV show hasn’t hurt).
« I don’t need anyone’s money, » Trump proclaimed unabashedly when he announced his candidacy last year. « I’m using my own money. I’m not using lobbyists. I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich. »
Going into Super Tuesday and beyond, the focus — even within his own Republican Party — is on stopping the Trump machine. Many are running scared of what America would be like under Trump’s leadership and he makes due on promises to force US allies to pay their own way and stop freeloading,  erect a wall with Mexico to stop immigration, slap taxes on China, kill terrorists and give Russian President Putin a free hand in the Middle East. This would chart an entirely new course for the country, and while some think it’s just the tonic that’s needed, others worry about the unprecedented and destabilizing hangover it will cause at home and abroad.