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Lessons for EU democrats from the Iowa Republican primary

Martin Westlake / Jan 2024

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There was one headline message from last Monday’s Iowa Republican primary; former US President Donald Trump’s landslide victory. ‘Triumph in Iowa’ blared Libération. ‘Trump crushes his opponents,’ declared La Libre Belgique. ‘Trump calls, Iowa answers,’ said Die Zeit, ‘Landslide’ trumpeted the Financial Times. Such an early and conclusive victory leaves Trump in pole position for the Republican nomination and creates massive momentum as the remaining candidates head on to New Hampshire and beyond.

But the Iowa result was significant in more senses than one. Turnout was the lowest in 24 years. Just over 110,000 Republican voters (out of a total electorate of +/- 750,000 registered Republicans) braved the freezing temperatures and treacherous roads. Of those, some 56,000 voted for Donald Trump. Not such a big number for somebody who has apparently captured the party and remoulded it in his image. But the low turnout (+/-14.5%) and Trump’s relatively small proportion (just 7.5%) of the total Republican electorate should be no cause for optimism among those who fear a second Donald Trump Presidency. Quite simply, the Iowa primary was not that competitive; Trump had long held a commanding lead among primary voters, both in Iowa and nationally. Most U.S. pundits agreed that, as much as the poor weather, his inevitable victory depressed turnout.

There are lessons – and warnings – in these facts for EU democrats, particularly in the context of this June’s elections to the European Parliament (EP) and the subsequent nomination and election of the European Commission’s new president. Shortly after the first, 1979, direct elections to the EP, a Mannheim-based political scientist, Karlheinz Reif, published a study in which he coined the term ‘second order national elections’. He argued that, ‘as long as the national political systems decide most of what there is to be decided politically, and everything really important, European elections are additional national second-order elections.’ They are determined, he continued, ‘more by the domestic political cleavages than by alternatives originating in the EC, but in a different way than if nine first-order national elections took place simultaneously.’

This, he argued, explained to a considerable extent why turnout in European elections was so much lower than national elections – no government was at stake – and also why, in such conditions, European elections tended to reward more extreme and protest political parties, since the results did matter to them and their voters, who would turn out disproportionally. The European Parliament, the champion of democratic legitimacy, and the EU more generally, have been struggling with the conundrum of low turnout – sometimes embarrassingly low – and disproportionate representation ever since.

In the 2001 Convention on the future of Europe a proposal was launched that, its proponents argued, would overcome the ‘second order national elections’ aspect of European elections and hence enhance turnout. Europe’s political parties should put forward their candidates to become President of the European Commission. Member States were chary of losing their prerogative to nominate the Commission President. The ultimate result, as it appeared in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, was an ambiguous compromise. TEU Article 17(7) provides that: ‘Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members.’


The EPP party, which had enthusiastically embraced the concept, decided to build on the ambiguity and push for it to be implemented. The procedure, which became known as the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’, or ‘lead candidate’ procedure, first surfaced seriously in the 2014 European elections. European political parties would hold primaries to select their lead candidates. Whichever party won the most seats in the European election could expect its lead candidate to be proposed by the European Council to become the President of the European Commission, and that nomination would then be endorsed by an absolute majority in the European Parliament itself. The European Council did not agree with this reversal of institutional prerogatives, but in 2014 the EPP won the most seats in the European Parliament and Jean-Claude Juncker, who had been the EPP’s lead candidate, was also the European Council’s choice. Although overall turnout was down slightly (42.5%) the Spitzenkandidaten procedure seemed to have worked.

In 2019, the procedure did not entirely work. The EPP selected as its lead candidate Manfred Weber, EPP Group leader in the European Parliament (but a CSU German MEP). The newly formed Renew Europe Group, where Emanuel Macron’s Renaissance MEPs sat, did not nominate a lead candidate and it was known that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was herself against the Spitzenkandidaten procedure. Merkel and Macron between themselves concocted a compromise which saw Ursula von der Leyen – a CDU German MP – proposed by the European Council. The Parliament’s bluff had been called, and it gave in – narrowly. Von der Leyen’s nomination was approved by 383 votes – just 9 votes more than the required absolute majority – and went on to form a Commission that was more broadly endorsed by the EP (by 461 votes). To the proponents of the procedure, this setback rankled, but the conditions had not been propitious. Not all the political parties nominated lead candidates and the EPP had nominated somebody who could never be acceptable to the European Council. To rub salt into the wounds, turnout went up by 8 points to 50.6%

Now, in 2024, proponents of the Spitzenkandidaten process are confident that the procedure will work again and thus become an established part of the Union’s political machinery. (As former EP Secretary General Klaus Welle quipped to an EPP meeting, ‘once is an accident, twice is a tradition’.) The stars are once again aligned: all the European political parties plan to select Spitzenkandidaten; and the party expected to do most well in the European elections, the EPP, will almost certainly choose Ursula von der Leyen as its candidate. Since, as the current President of the European Commission, she is also a member of the European Council, she would tick all the boxes. Her candidature is even a part of the current German government’s coalition agreement (if, contrarily, von der Leyen does not remain as Commission President, the German Greens will propose Germany’s member of the European Commission). As important as all that, von der Leyen is generally considered to have been doing a very good job under extremely testing circumstances. This led Politico to run a front-page headline, ‘Can anybody stop Ursula von der Leyen?’

But this is where the first lesson of Iowa comes in; if the result is a foregone conclusion, people are less likely to turn out and vote. If the aim of the Spitzenkandidaten procedure is to give people an incentive to turn out and vote in European elections, then having a runaway candidate regarded as a shoo-in for a second term is not ideal. Just supposing that the federal level campaign of the EPP, with Ursula von der Leyen at its head, does manage to make some sort of impact on the European voter. What will be its message if her reappointment is already a foregone conclusion?

That leads on to the second lesson of Iowa. For voters to believe that there is a contest, opposing parties have to put forward viable candidates. It did not matter how much money Ron De Santis spent, nor how many times he visited Iowa’s 99 counties; he won none of them. So, who are the rival S&D Party likely to put up against von der Leyen? The answer is a 70 year-old white Luxemburgish male former minister and current Commissioner called Nicolas Schmit. ‘Nicolas who?’ wrote Politico. Almost certainly because von der Leyen is so likely to be reappointed, no other candidate within the S&D Party put her or his name forward. As John McEnroe was wont to say, ‘You cannot be serious!’ The S&D Party is not just throwing in the towel when it comes to the Spitzenkandidaten procedure but is as good as admitting that its member parties will fight the European elections on national domestic issues – second order national elections, anyone?

What of the other political parties? ALDE’s probable choice, Stéphane Séjourné, until recently President of the Renew Group in the EP, has just gone back to Paris to serve as minister of foreign affairs but, in any case, was hardly a household name in any member state other than his own. The Greens have decided to run two candidates and will choose between Terry Reintke (a favourite), Bas Eickhout, Elena Pinto and Benedetta Scuderi. All of these people are no doubt honourable, conscientious and effective politicians, but that’s not the point. If they and their parties run ‘against’ von der Leyen and the EPP, they won’t stand a chance. Even if the Socialists and the Liberals prefer to fight at the level of the individual Member States, they will be up against von der Leyen’s visibility and positive record on issues such as Covid-19 vaccines and Ukraine. In any case, such ‘contests’ are hardly likely to increase turnout – at least, not by themselves.

There is a third lesson from Iowa, and that is that depressed turnout can produce exaggerated impressions. Trump won just 7.5% of the Republican electorate in Iowa, but it was 56% of the total vote, and it was that large percentage that generated the ‘landslide’ headlines of the last week and has now given Trump’s candidature such authoritative momentum.

Of course, polls provide a snapshot and do not in themselves have predictive value. Nevertheless, Politico’s poll of polls continues to chart the gradual decline of the EPP (projected number of seats in June = 171), the S&D (141), Renew (82) and the Greens (42), and the steady rise of the right-wing ID (91) and ECR (78) parties. Depressed turnout will surely help that trend in member states like France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, where the Rassemblement National, the Fratelli d’Italia, the AfD and Gert Wilders’ Party for Freedom have the wind in their sails. The trend has led two LSE academics, Brunello Rosa and Benedict Poettering, to publish a recent blog post entitled, ‘Can a Centre-Right Coalition Emerge After the Next European Elections?’ Their conclusion, ‘not quite yet’, is not very reassuring. In any case, by June of this year, von der Leyen’s chronicle of a reappointment foretold will be old, stale news. On the other hand, we can expect our media to be full of headlines along the lines of ‘shock gains for the right’ and ‘old parties punished’ – copy editors would not be doing their jobs otherwise!

In conclusion, Iowa’s third lesson for European democrats, combined with Reif’s ‘second-order’ concept about electoral cycles, leads to a warning. As the British Conservatives learned to their cost with UKIP and its increasing numbers of seats in European elections, European politics increasingly feeds back into domestic politics. The expected good performances of the Dutch, French, German and Italian nationalists will not only grant them resources, visibility and a stable platform. It will also enable them to confirm their narrative that Europe and its member states are shifting ever further to the right. Surely neither opponents nor proponents of the Spitzenkandidaten procedure would want that.

Martin Westlake

Martin Westlake

January 2024

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