Every four years the US holds an important event: a season of lamentation that we don’t have Britain’s eight-week electoral campaigns.

Our system is strange because it’s trying to address contradictory goals, which are reshuffled periodically as party leaders address what went wrong last time, undoing whatever they did to address what went wrong the time before.

The main goal is to have the party strongly coalesce behind one candidate.  This conflicts with other goals, such as having that candidate appeal to the nation as a whole, making voters feel that they have meaningful choices, and getting voters familiar with the candidates.  As the balance between these changes each election, the rules never quite match the current situation.

Long ago, candidates were chosen at the conventions, but this is the last thing the parties want these days– they want the conventions to be four-day-long commercials.  They want the candidate to arrive at the convention as a conquering hero.  As intra-party politics is felt to be unseemly, the period of unity is extended farther and farther back (which is why Romney just quit).  The states however feel that they’d like to be involved in the decision-making rather than the coronation, so they move their primaries back (thus this week’s 24-state primary).  And that in turn means that the real campaign starts a year earlier, and culminates in overhyped contests in a few unrepresentative states.

There’s wild talk about the Democratic contest continuing till the convention, at which time the Illuminati can step in with their superdelegates, presumably intent to support the less popular candidate.  Don’t pay this any heed.  Right now Obama is ahead in pledged delegates (635 to 630 according to CNN).  Very likely either he or Hillary will pull ahead in the next month and it’ll be all over. 

The story on the Republican side is more interesting, because much of the base really dislikes McCain (for his support for immigration, his votes against tax cuts, and a perceived weakness on cultural issues).  Some may vote for Huckabee now that Romney is out of the race, but that’s not going to go anywhere.  Many will just stay home in November; on the other hand McCain can appeal to independents.

My guess is that McCain would beat Hillary, but Obama would beat McCain– just barely in both cases.  But this election has been confounding easy predictions.  (For much of last fall McCain looked like he was on the ropes.)

On the plus side, it looks like we will actually elect a grown-up this year.  (Though moderates had better look closely at McCain’s VP; McCain will be 72 next year.)