BBC 2024-03-05 16:32:23


Super Tuesday: Biggest day yet in US election as 15 states choose candidates

Sumi Somaskanda

Chief presenter, reporting from California

Meanwhile, it’s not the presidential primary that’ll get the most attention in California. There’s also a contest to claim the seat held by the late Senator Dianne Feinstein, who passed away in September.

Interestingly, California has a non-partisan, top-two primary system, meaning whoever finishes in the top two on Tuesday – whether Democrat or Republican – will face off in the general election in November.

Two Democrats in Congress, Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, are locked in a tight race with a strong Republican challenger: former baseball star Steve Garvey (Americans do love their sports stars).

We’ll be watching this one closely.

Super Tuesday: Four things to watch out for as Americans vote

US voters head to the polls in 15 states spanning the breadth of the continent on Tuesday, from Maine to California and Alaska to Alabama.

At stake are more than a third of the delegates to this summer’s Democratic and Republican conventions, which will determine the two major parties’ presidential candidates.

It is the biggest one-day prize of the presidential nomination calendar, conducted in states (and American Samoa) with a total population of more than 134 million.

This year’s Super Tuesday is not expected to generate many surprises, with Joe Biden and Donald Trump continuing their march towards a rematch of the 2020 election in November.

As the results roll in throughout the evening, however, there will still be plenty to watch out for. Here are four key things to keep in mind.

  • What is Super Tuesday and why is it important?

1. A Trump rout in the making?

Republicans have held nine nomination contests so far (with a 10th in North Dakota on Monday). In all but one – Sunday’s primary in Washington DC – Donald Trump has been victorious.

Polls indicate that the former president will run the table on Super Tuesday, carrying the 15 states by a comfortable margin. If he does so, he will build up a near-insurmountable lead in convention delegates, given that many of the states allocate their entire slate of delegates to whoever wins a majority of the vote.

While Mr Trump may not be able to mathematically guarantee that he is the Republican Party nominee, a strong Super Tuesday should eliminate whatever shadow of doubt there was remaining even after his early successes.

Behind what should be formidable top-line numbers, however, keep an eye on exit polls that may reveal continued disaffection with the former president among some primary voters. Earlier surveys indicated a not insignificant minority would not support Mr Trump in November – or could turn on him if he were to be found guilty in one of his trials.

2. Nikki Haley’s exit plan

The former South Carolina governor, Mr Trump’s sole remaining Republican opponent, has benefitted from the support of many of those anti-Trump primary voters, but it hasn’t been nearly enough. She has doggedly stayed in the race despite a streak of bad results (Washington DC, notwithstanding).

Weeks ago she pledged to stick it out through Super Tuesday, hoping to add to her delegate totals, particularly in the 11 states holding primaries that are open to non-Republican voters, an area of relative strength for her.

Already, however, rumours are floating that she is preparing to end her campaign in the days ahead.

A particularly thorough drubbing on Tuesday may accelerate those plans or even lead her to throw in the towel that evening. Assuming she doesn’t do that, look for hints in her speech on Tuesday night as to her plans in the coming days.

Will she ultimately endorse Mr Trump, as her fellow non-Trump presidential rivals have? Would she reconsider an independent presidential bid? Is she already positioning for a 2028 presidential run?

At 53, Ms Haley is still young (for a national politician). But the decisions she makes after Super Tuesday could go a long way in determining what doors open and which are slammed shut.

3. A Biden protest vote

If there’s little drama in the Republican primary race at this point, there’s practically none on the Democratic side.

Joe Biden has rolled to comfortable victories against token opposition in South Carolina and Michigan (as well as a nonbinding vote in New Hampshire). He appears poised to continue his march on Tuesday.

The most consequential obstacle to the president so far has come from those who oppose his Gaza policy. They accuse him of turning a blind eye to what critics regard as Palestinian genocide, an accusation which Israel vehemently denies, saying it is focused on destroying Hamas.

In Michigan last week, more than 100,000 voters – 12% of the total – turned out to cast ballots for “uncommitted” instead of for Mr Biden, as part of an organised Gaza war protest.

While there do not seem to be similar efforts in the 14 states that hold Democratic votes on Tuesday (Republicans are also voting in Alaska), watch the results to see if there are any significant non-Biden surprises.

With its largest-in-the-nation Muslim and Arab population, Michigan’s results may be the high water mark for the Gaza protest. But turnout levels across the US, as well as opinions registered in exit polls by Democratic voters, could provide indications of the strength (or weakness) of Mr Biden’s campaign efforts so far.

4. Down-ballot drama

In several states, voters are casting primary ballots for more than just president. How those results shake out will help determine what kind of political environment Mr Trump or Mr Biden has to deal with after taking the oath of office next January.

California is holding its non-partisan “jungle” primary, where the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election. Voters there are deciding on candidates for the Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein, who died last year, and determining opponents for several Republican House incumbents who are high on the Democratic target list.

In Texas, the big battles are within the Republican Party, as Attorney General Ken Paxton – with the help of Donald Trump – is targeting state politicians who unsuccessfully tried to remove him from office on corruption charges.

The legislature in the second-most populous US state is already run by Republicans who have enacted aggressive legislation on voting rules, abortion and immigration. It could swing even further to the right if Mr Paxton’s efforts are successful.

North Carolina is the only swing state voting on Super Tuesday and there’s a lot going on there. Its race for governor will be one of the closest watched in November and if they win their primaries it will pit the state’s Democratic attorney general, Josh Stein, against Republican front-runner, Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson.

North Carolina has primaries for five open House of Representatives seats. Because the state’s Republican-controlled legislature redrew the maps to favour their party and limit closely contested races, the votes on Tuesday will probably determine who goes on to comfortably win in November.

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UN: ‘Convincing information’ sexual violence committed against hostages in Gaza

A UN team says there is “convincing information” that hostages held in Gaza have been subjected to sexual violence including rape and sexualised torture.

There were grounds to suspect the abuse was still ongoing, the UN said.

The UN team also found “reasonable grounds to believe” sexual violence, including gang rape, took place when Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October.

Israel’s foreign ministry said it welcomed the “definitive recognition that Hamas committed sexual crimes”.

The UN Security Council should now designate Hamas as a terrorist organisation and impose international sanctions on it, spokesman Lior Haiat said.

Hamas rejected the UN report as “baseless and only aimed at demonising the Palestinian resistance”.

The group denies its gunmen sexually assaulted women during the attacks or mistreated female hostages they took to Gaza.

Warning: Contains graphic descriptions of rape and sexual violence

Pramila Patten, the UN’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, said her team had “found clear and convincing information that sexual violence, including rape, sexualised torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” had been committed against hostages.

There were “reasonable grounds” to believe such violence could be “ongoing against those still held in captivity”, she told reporters.

Hamas gunmen infiltrated southern Israel on 7 October – killing about 1,200 people and taking 253 others hostage.

The UN report said “the mission team found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that conflict-related sexual violence occurred in multiple locations during the 7 October attacks”.

These happened in at least three locations – the Nova music festival site and its surroundings, Road 232, and Kibbutz Re’im, it added.

Reports of sexual violence carried out by Hamas – which is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the UK and others – began to emerge soon after 7 October and have accumulated steadily ever since.

The BBC has also seen and heard evidence of rape, sexual violence and mutilation of women.

Israel responded to the 7 October attack by launching a military campaign in Gaza, during which 30,500 people have been killed, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

The UN team visited Israel between 29 January and 14 February.

The mission, led by Ms Patten along with nine experts, was not investigative in nature, but designed to gather and verify allegations, the UN said.

It added that 33 meetings were held with Israeli representatives, and more than 5,000 photographic images were examined as well as 50 hours of video footage.

The report said that “despite concerted efforts to encourage” victims to come forward, the team was unable to interview any of them.

Some allegations of rape and sexual violence were “unfounded”, the report explained, including the graphically publicised case of a pregnant woman whose womb was reportedly torn open and her foetus stabbed. Other reports could not be verified due to limited imagery, the UN said.

It also said it had not been able to establish a discernible pattern of genital mutilation.

The UN report also said there had been allegations of sexual violence against Palestinians in Israeli custody, including “unwanted touching of intimate areas” and “prolonged forced nudity” in detention settings, during house raids and at checkpoints after 7 October.

The report said that while no instances of rape against Palestinians were reported, conservative cultural norms could have impeded reporting of sexual assault.

Israel’s foreign ministry rejected this part of the report.

“That is a derisive and deliberate Palestinian manoeuvre aimed at creating an intolerable equivalence between the horrific crimes that were committed, and continue to be committed, by Hamas and malicious and baseless claims made against Israel and Israelis,” Mr Haiat said.

Israel has rejected similar allegations made previously by a panel of independent UN experts as “despicable and unfounded”.

Mr Haiat also said Israel opposed a recommendation made in the report that the country co-operate with the UN’s international Commission of Inquiry, which is trying to conduct an investigation into potential war crimes on all sides.

He accused the inquiry of being hostile to Israel.

Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Monday recalled the country’s ambassador to the UN for “consultations”, accusing the UN of an “attempt to silence the grave UN report on the mass rapes”.

He criticised UN Secretary General António Guterres for not convening the Security Council to discuss the findings and in order to declare Hamas a terrorist organisation.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that Mr Guterres “has fully supported” Ms Patten’s work in her visit to Israel.

“In no way, shape or form did the secretary-general do anything to keep the report ‘quiet’. In fact, the report is being presented publicly today,” Mr Dujarric said.

The Texas wildfires weren’t caused by drought

The worst wildfire in Texas’ history is leaving wide scars on the landscape. Why is the blaze so extreme?
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Temperatures dropped and snow began to fall on the Texas panhandle, dusting the scorched grasslands, thousands of dead cattle, and hundreds of burnt-out buildings with a fine layer of white powder. It was a welcome relief – and an apocalyptic image – for the state, which has been battling its worst wildfire in history.

The Smokehouse Creek fire, which started on 26 February in Hutchinson County, has so far burned more than 1.2 million acres (486,000 hectares), and killed two people and thousands of cattle. On 27 February, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties in response to the wildfire.

Wildfire risk is expected to increase across Texas as climate change brings drier, hotter conditions, according to a 2021 report by Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. The wildfire season will likely last longer in places where there is little rain, such as eastern Texas and areas commonly affected by wildfires may expand eastward, as fuels become drier faster, thanks to a warmer climate.

But the Smokehouse Creek fire did not spread so rapidly and burn so intensely because of any prolonged drought – instead, the flames were exacerbated by a wet winter. The reasons behind this kind of extreme fire behaviour are not quite as clear cut as one might first think.

Why drought did not fuel the Texas blaze

Extreme wildfires have become more common across the US in recent years, primarily thanks to  drought and warming temperatures. But the area where the Smokehouse Creek fire is burning – just north of Amarillo – is not currently in extreme drought like other more southerly areas of Texas.

“Drought has not dominated Texas’s climate nearly as strongly as it has in the region to the west,” says Park Williams, a University College of Los Angeles geography professor. In 2020, Williams published a study which showed the American south-west is currently experiencing a megadroughtthe worst dry period the region has seen since 800AD. But only a “sliver” of Texas was included in the study, Williams says.

The primary reason the Smokehouse Creek fire spread so quickly was due to a relatively wet winter, combined with warm temperatures and high wind speeds, Williams explains.

There are other ingredients for wildfires aside from drought; four “switches” are required: fuel abundance, fuel dryness, source of ignition and suitable conditions for fire spread. In Texas, these switches are often flipped in the first part of the year when it comes to extreme fire: of the 30 largest wildfires in Texas history, 90% occurred between January and May.

There’s still relatively little research on how wet winters impact wildfire intensity. “Climate change may have affected the amount of vegetative growth that provided fuel for the fire,” says Nielsen-Gammon, “but there hasn’t been much work on the subject.”

Why have the fires in Texas been so bad?

Texas generally receives more rainfall in the summer, the warmest part of the year, and it is dry but cold in winter and spring. “In other words, key factors for fires do not line up perfectly: it’s cold when it’s dry but wet when it’s warm,” says Flavio Lehner, assistant professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University in New York says. Except, for this year.

The Smokehouse Creek fire followed an unusual weather period.

In mid-February, the week prior to the fire, cities in the panhandle broke records for high temperatures, hitting 83-85F (28-29C). Then strong, cold winds blew in –  hitting up to 70mph gusts, fanning the flames and pushing the wildfires to the east. Another wind blew in southward, shifting the fires to the south.

“Given the weather pattern and strong winds, climate change would be expected to cause higher temperatures and greater evaporation rates, leading to drier fuels that are easier to ignite and burn,” says Nielsen-Gammon.

Why long-term droughts may lead to more wildfires

Drought does increase the probability of large-scale wildfires by drying out the soil. It also increases fire intensity because more fuel is available to burn, and the drying of organic material in the soil can make suppressing fires much harder.

“Megadroughts can set the perfect scene for large wildfires,” says Danielle Touma, research assistant professor at University of Texas’ institute for geophysics. “It can also make it more difficult to suppress wildfires due to the limited amount of water in the region.”

But there’s a flip side, Touma adds. There can be less vegetation growth due to drought, which would prevent regrowth of vegetation in areas have already been burned. Essentially, if there’s not enough water for vegetation to grow, there’s no fuels for fire to burn.

What is certain however it that higher temperatures and drought conditions in Texas are likely to increase the severity, frequency, and extent of wildfires in the future. A 2020 study warned that water stakeholders should prepare for future droughts that will be unlike anything the region has experienced, as climate projections portray an “unprecedented” drought risk.

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The current blaze shows how severe a fire can be even without these added pressures. Lehner described the growth of the Smokehouse Creek fire as “explosive”.

“It’s not surprising to see wildfires in this area, although the rate at which this one grew and also the area it has burned so far are certainly exceptional,” Lehner says. “Like a lot of grass and shrub-land fires, the wind is the key factor, driving the fire across the landscapes at speeds effectively outpacing fire suppression efforts.”

Texas’ climate is expected to become more fire prone, Lehner says. “It’s more likely than not that conditions favourable for wildfire will become more common in Texas in the future.” The entire state is facing longer and more intense drought conditions, creating “fire weather“.

The uncertainties of a changing climate

But, he adds, climate change is making it harder to foresee how quickly and to what extent Texas will become more vulnerable to wildfire. “Interestingly, with climate change we are observing an eastward shift of the dividing line between these two climate zones, which means Texas’ climate, especially in the panhandle area, is expected to become more fire prone.”

But, as Williams notes, precipitation plays a key role – which can be hard to anticipate.

“How quickly and how strongly this will happen is difficult to say, as it depends a lot on how rainfall patterns will change.” Rainfall is much more challenging to predict than warming temperatures, says Williams, due to the complexity of the processes that generate precipitation. Climate change will also make rainfall even harder to predict.

In this particular region of Texas, the panhandle, where there are extensive grasslands, it is less clear how continued climate change will affect wildfire overall, Williams continues. “In order for warming to have a reliable influence on fire, abundant fuels are needed, and the grassland fuel availability in this region is strongly affected by year-to-year swings in precipitation.”

What does this mean for Texans?

The state is one of the country’s leading exporters of agriculture commodities – 86% of Texas land is in some form of agricultural production and the industry employs one out of every seven working Texans.

“Cattle and crop losses are significant and infrastructure damage is catastrophic,” said Sid Miller, commissioner for the Department of Texas Agriculture. “I know of ranchers who have lost everything. Even those Texans fortunate enough to save their herd may not have anything to return to but ashes.”

The industry was already facing pressure from the widespread drought that gripped the state last year, forcing cattle ranchers to manage smaller herds – which led to higher beef prices and contributed to a decrease in beef production nationally.

That the Smokehouse Creek Fire was not the result of prolonged drought is even more concerning for Texans, but follows the pattern of weather in the state becoming more frequent, more extreme. Data projections predict a significant increase in the land burned by wildfires – for example, by 2050 Colorado is expected to see a 600% increase in areas burned by fire. As always, the key in coping with these events is preparation. Managing the land – through prescribed burns and managing fuels, can decrease fire spread and intensity.

“When you have an unprecedented event like this, there’s a chance that communities are not adequately prepared, as they simply have not experienced this before,” says Lehrer.

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How DEI became a lightning rod for controversy

Diversity, equity and inclusion programmes picked up in the past few years. They’ve brought US companies positive results – but are increasingly caught in the crossfire.
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In the US, as diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives have mainstreamed, so has criticism around them. The letters ‘DEI’ themselves – let alone the programmes to implement these principles – have increasingly stirred controversy among high-profile leaders, who’ve taken aim at the concept across both the public and private sectors. Among the loudest opposing voices are hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman and Elon Musk – both billionaires with large social media followings – who launched their attacks beginning late 2023.

DEI is a set of principles designed to make people of various backgrounds – including socio-economic class, race, gender and physical ability – feel supported, welcomed and safe. In a business context, it’s meant to set up marginalised workers for the same success as their peers. These programmes are an integral part of many businesses’ core strategies, yet the mere mention of them has pitted politicians and powerful executives against proponents of DEI policies and the leaders who implement them.

Companies have implemented advancement programmes for minority workers for decades, but the term ‘DEI’ mainstreamed following the 2020 murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. In response to public pressure for corporate social accountability in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, many firms including Google, Nike and Wells Fargo began appointing chief diversity officers to oversee their newly minted – and widely publicised – DEI efforts.

Beyond a show of solidarity, these DEI programmes proved to be a boon for positive publicity and resulted in the creation of jobs: in 2021, the first year after the Black Lives Matter protests, companies listed on the S&P 100 added more than 300,000 jobs – 94% of which went to people of colour. The initiatives were also successful for business itself: in 2022, McKinsey & Company reported that companies with robust DEI programmes were better able to respond to challenges, win top talent and meet the needs of different customer bases.

Now, many workers and employers alike have been left wondering why these largely successful programmes are attracting so much backlash – and whether their days are numbered.

Nike was among the first swath of American companies who appointed executives to spearhead DEI efforts (Credit: Alamy)

A deep-rooted history

Although the visibility of DEI initiatives reached fever pitch in the past years, the concept of equal opportunity in the workplace isn’t new. Lily Zheng, DEI strategist, consultant and author of DEI Deconstructed: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing It Right, traces the emergence of the term back to the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1965. The EEOC enabled individuals to report companies engaging in workplace discrimination on the basis of gender, race, age, pregnancy and more.

Zheng says growing awareness of discrimination in the workplace – and the increasing threat of legal action – led many businesses and institutions to incorporate policies that centred the rights and advancement of minority and marginalised groups. Zheng dates the adoption and widespread use of the terms ‘diversity’, ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ to roughly between the 1990s and early 2020s.

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DEI boosts the bottom line for many companies, according to both experts and data. Research shows major firms with women and people of colour at the helm outperform their homogenous peers. A 2020 McKinsey & Company analysis of 1,000 US firms showed companies with more gender diversity within their leadership teams were 25% more likely to have higher profits than their peers who did not. The report also showed companies with the most ethnic and cultural diversity achieved 36% higher profitability than companies with a less diverse C-suite.

As businesses rapidly globalise, DEI is becoming even more important for many firms. US companies that manufacture in America might, for example, have engineers working in Asia, which means employees who can work cross-culturally will be an asset, says Michele Williams, associate professor at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.

Companies with more gender diversity within their leadership teams were 25% more likely to have higher profits than their peers who did not

And domestically, as the population of the US continues to rapidly diversify, the demographics of American workplaces will change as well, says Gisele Marcus, professor of practice in diversity, equity and inclusion at Washington University in St Louis. Companies that actively engage a diverse pool of talent now will be the most nimble in the future, she says.

Echoes of the past

Amid the past three years of widespread layoffs, DEI programmes and the professionals who led them took a blow. Looking for cost savings, many companies dismantled DEI-focused initiatives, and in some cases, eliminated entire departments responsible for the advancement of marginalised workers. Many of the employees who found themselves in the crosshairs were workers of colour, particularly women.

Cuts proliferate. After reaching their peak in early 2023, DEI positions dipped 5% by the end of last year, according to a Revelio Labs analysis shared with The Washington Post. Despite a hiring spree, companies have either shed or struggled to retain their chief diversity officers.

As workers increasingly pushed back on DEI in business, companies responded with programmes for hiring and advancement – but many are now being targeted (Credit: Getty Images)

Some people and firms are now fatigued following George Floyd’s death, the “guilt” brought by America’s racial dialogue and the subsequent surge in DEI interest, says Malia Lazu, a lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and author of From Intention to Impact: A Practical Guide to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Firms that rushed to make reactionary public commitments about their DEI goals were not equipped to properly execute them, she adds.

Businesses have offered their own reasons for cutting back on DEI. Marcus says companies are minimising their DEI efforts in response to claims such programmes give marginalised groups preferential treatment. Many firms are worried about finding themselves as the targets of anti-DEI litigation, which is becoming increasingly common as the voices of detractors are amplified in the larger cultural conversation. Because of that threat of public scrutiny, “people are nervous”, says Marcus – even though typical DEI initiatives have most likely been reviewed for their legality.

These concerns may be warranted. In August 2023, the Fearless Fund, an Atlanta-based venture capital firm that supports underfunded start-ups founded by black women, was sued by the American Alliance for Equal Rights, an organisation that challenges “distinctions and preferences made on the basis of race and ethnicity”. The plaintiffs alleged the fund was discriminatory because it excluded entrepreneurs who aren’t black women, and thus violates the Civil Rights Act of 1866, according to court filings reviewed by the BBC. In February, Fearless Fund CEO Arian Simone told reporters the company has lost “millions of dollars” as a result of the lawsuit.

Because of the threat of public scrutiny on their DEI programmes, “people are nervous”, says Gisele Marcus

This DEI backlash doesn’t surprise Zheng, who sees parallels in the current rhetoric to criticism of US diversity initiatives of the past. Zheng likens it to the response to President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 executive order calling for the elimination of racial, ethnic and religious discrimination, commonly referred to as “affirmative action”. Some aspects of the mandate attracted criticism, especially as many public and private institutions moved to install quotas to comply. As tension mounted throughout the years, the policy came under fire as “reverse racism”.

DEI’s next act         

Despite a climate that’s increasingly putting pressure on both the language and practice of DEI, research suggests companies plan to continue their work in the space.

A Morning Consult survey released in January showed 82% of business executives think diversity initiatives are critical to their business strategies, and 67% said they expect these efforts to become more important in the coming years. The survey also showed nearly half of executives said their primary reason for implementing diversity initiatives is to “improve business performance”, acquire better talent (43%) and increase creativity (38%). Only 2% of business leaders surveyed said such initiatives aren’t important. 

And although some firms have scaled back their DEI efforts, many companies with these initiatives don’t plan to axe them. A December 2023 survey of nearly 200 US chief human resources officers from The Conference Board showed none of the respondents planned to reduce their DEI initiatives, policies or programming. Nearly two-thirds expect to focus their efforts on attracting diverse employees. 

Yet some companies are still walking on eggshells as the environment remains hostile. Marcus says firms may not discuss DEI work as openly, and may instead be quieter about financial commitments to DEI work, or drop the terminology altogether. Ultimately, however, experts are confident efforts will keep going – even if they’re labelled something else, or nothing at all. After all, powerful voices may be loud – but bottom lines speak volumes.