This year’s US presidential election has featured baffling twists and bewildering turns. We meet the correspondents tasked with explaining the inexplicable and translating the debate for their audiences at home.
For those on the outside looking in, US elections can be a struggle. While most countries have a decent grasp of the candidates and core themes – plus the heady mix of money, power and TV razzmatazz – knowledge often stops there. First there are the complex inner machinations of the primaries and caucuses and the complex amassing of delegates. Then the triumphant (and lengthy) convention process, during which, in theory at least, the party gets behind a single candidate for the highly choreographed bright-lights-and-balloons crowning.
For the overseas correspondents on the road or packed into the Foreign Press Center during the conventions, the problem is twofold. Firstly, they mustn’t fall into the trap of gawking at what is a pantomime-like process; secondly, they need to unearth the most interesting issues for a public already well schooled in US culture and politics. We speak to correspondents from Germany, Australia, Sweden, Iran and Turkey about what they need to take into consideration for their respective audiences. These countries all care about who the US chooses as its next president – but how to explain the sense of decline that is tearing apart the Republican party? Or how about the sudden popularity of outsider candidates on both sides of the political divide? The questions are endless and there are no easy answers.
Organisation: Die Tageszeitung
Arrived in US: January 2010
“There’s a permanent election going on in the US – as soon as one is over the next one starts. There are enormous amounts of unregulated and uncontrolled money that come in, which is a total contrast to Germany where funding is organised by law and relatively transparent. Another major difference is that there are only two parties – there are some outside candidates but if you want to have a chance of being elected, it’s the Democrats or Republicans.
My readers know a lot about the US. When I wake up my colleagues in Berlin have already been working for several hours and can tell me details about US candidates that I don’t know yet. It’s not difficult to introduce the characters because they already know them. And the celebrity culture? I’d say that Angela Merkel, after being chancellor for 11 years, is a celebrity. Our national elections are a matter of weeks though; we don’t get to be amused or upset for such a long time [as in the US].
I’m writing a book on Hillary Clinton. She’s a woman and she’s a hawk; she has been around for a long time and has a lot of experience. People know that. She is quite popular in Germany but she has also changed her positions pretty often. I try to identify behaviours and philosophy in her public life that give some idea of what kind of a president she might become.
The US is a superpower. This is a national election but with international repercussions. I can easily imagine how frightened German diplomats are about the prospect of sitting with somebody like Trump in a delicate international negotiation."
“I really hope the US doesn’t elect Trump. I think Hillary will win but I’m not a polling institute – and I’m not sure whether that’s just my hope that Donald Trump is going to lose.”
Organisation: Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Arrived in US: December 2015
“Australians still see the US president as effectively the leader of the free world. The US is a close ally – if it goes to war, Australia goes to war – and our economies are closely aligned. US elections always get a lot of coverage in Australia but even more so this year because it’s so unusual.
There’s a lot of interest in Donald Trump so the key thing for us has been to explain his appeal to voters – why he has support and that it is quite widespread. People tend to assume that because of his inflammatory rhetoric, the people that support him are right-wing extremists, ignorant or rednecks. That’s not necessarily the case so part of our focus has been to tap into a broad spectrum of his supporters. In terms of Hillary Clinton, Australians know her because she’s been around for so long but we try to explain to the audience that being a known quantity and being an establishment figure are also downsides.
We also need to explain to our audience that in a US context, Bernie Sanders is seen as extreme left wing, whereas a lot of what he talks about are things we already have in Australia: universal healthcare, publicly funded universities and gun control.
Australia has just had an election where there has been a backlash against the two-party system. For a while it looked like there would be a hung parliament and minor parties attracted a substantial proportion of the vote. So Australians can relate to what’s happening in the US because to some extent they feel the same; they have their own frustrations. We don’t take a position. We try to illuminate why the situation is how it is and show what’s driving dissatisfaction.”
“Someone once said to me that anyone who makes a prediction has no idea what they’re talking about. Clinton will have to work extremely hard to beat Trump.”
Organisation: Dagens Nyheter
Arrived in US: 2001 (“I was on a plane on September 11; that was the day I moved here.”)
“I decided in 2006 to write a book about Obama. I had written a lot in the years before that about race in the US and thought it would be interesting to write about this young black figure who was a contrast to George W Bush. I have now written three books about US politics. It’s satisfying because it helps with my newspaper reporting.
Earlier this week I was travelling around North Carolina talking to regular folks in rural areas about Donald Trump. I met a lot of war veterans addicted to opioids — much more interesting stories than you’d find at a campaign rally.
The most important aspect of the Trump campaign from the European perspective is this split between cosmopolitan liberals and rural populists. The 21st century has been fertile ground for xenophobia; the question is, what are the circumstances that make racism thrive and grow?
I try to explain to Swedish people that Trump isn’t the only thing that’s happening. The Obama era has moved the country to the left. The success of Obama – the fact that he was elected twice – was itself a sign of racial and social progress.”
“I consider Clinton a favourite. There are so many ways it could go wrong for her but it would take a lot for Trump to benefit from that.”
Organisation: BBC Persian
Arrived in US: October 2012
The US election system is so complicated – even for US journalists. Everything is different in each state and each party has its own rules so one of the biggest challenges is breaking down what’s going on for our audience, especially in the primaries. When candidates trade insults we also need to translate them. It’s difficult because we need to be accurate and to the point without going too far or not far enough. Sometimes irony and connotations can get lost in translation. If a statement is accused of being sexist, for example, we need to explain why it sounds sexist in English.
I’d say that one of the most surprising things for our audience is the fact that anti-establishment candidates in both parties did well in the primaries.Most Iranians really care about what is going to happen in the US elections and who is going to be the next president, whether hardliners, reformists or ordinary people. There’s an episode of The Daily Show from 2009 in which a man from my hometown of Isfahan named every US president over the past century. If you go onto the streets and ask most Americans, I’m not sure they could do that.
People care because in the last 50 years US presidents have somehow been vital to Iran’s politics and foreign policy. We’ve also had the rapprochement between presidents Rouhani and Obama and a nuclear deal. They are concerned about the next president: what will they do with the Iran deal? Will they respect it or redo everything?”
“I prefer to avoid clear predictions but this election is totally different from recent presidential elections. There are divisions within both parties.”
Arrived in US: February 2008
“A lot of Turkish people believe that the US president ultimately decides who runs Turkey and the governments in the region. That’s a conspiracy theory but for many it does make the question of who is the next president very important.
Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US was concerning for our readers. Previously, Trump had been thought of as simply a celebrity with investments in Turkey but my feeling now is that he’s regarded as an Islamophobe. Conversely, Turks remember Bill Clinton fondly; he visited the wrecked city of Izmit after an earthquake in 1999.
I have a weekly column that offers the view from Washington on our region and I don’t think that Turkish-US relations will change under the next president. For me US foreign policy is too pragmatic; US interests are maximised no matter what. We stand in a tough moment in Turkey, with an authoritarian leader and oppression of the press, but the US doesn’t care about these structural changes to Turkish politics and I’m critical of the ongoing co-operation between these two allies. This was true for the Obama administration and the next president will probably do the same.
The elections in the US are hard to cover because the campaigns don’t care about the foreign press. It’s even been hard to get the credentials this year but what struck me throughout the primaries and rallies is the similarity between Erdogan and Trump when they’re on the podium: the rhetoric, the aggression, how they never use a prompter. They both make gaffes but believe gaffes help their campaign.”
“It’s 50–50 for me. The polls might say Trump is behind but many ordinary citizens are not comfortable telling a pollster that they support Trump because it’s not politically correct. That all changes at the ballot box. We have the same thing in Turkey.”