The U.S. presidential campaign is finally taking shape. It is already a year into the contest and the election is still nine months away, but the field is being winnowed and some themes are emerging. Unfortunately, for many observers these developments are not encouraging. Anger and insecurity is washing over the United States. This is not new to the U.S., nor is it a uniquely American phenomenon. Nevertheless, it threatens to shape, if not determine, the 2016 presidential election.
The presidential race today looks vastly different from that which was anticipated when the contest began. Then, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush looked set to claim the Democratic and Republican nominations, respectively. Each enjoyed the support of her or his establishment (Bush had a $100 million war chest to scare or fend off any challenger) and each’s claim to front-runner status was based on long experience governing, a deep appreciation of the complexity of issues and a readiness to govern from the center and heal the divisions of the last eight years of U.S. politics. Each candidate’s last name was either a blessing or a curse, depending on one’s point of view.
The anger that animated U.S. politics throughout the Obama years has not abated, however. The most important feature of the presidential campaign is the rise of anti-establishment candidates on the right and the left that tap a deep vein of anxiety and resentment. Their insurgent campaigns have surprising stability and appeal; among Republicans, the leading contenders for the nomination, reality TV entrepreneur Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, both claim that mantle. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — officially an independent who caucuses with Democrats and embraces the socialist label — has pulled even with Clinton and now defies expectations that he would be a flash-in-the-pan candidate.
Sanders was originally assumed to have entered the race to give voice to the alienation felt by progressives within the Democratic Party who thought they had been abandoned by President Barack Obama and feared that Clinton would continue to govern from the center. Sanders has run largely a one-note campaign that railed against the influence of money, in particular that of Wall Street, on the political process.
But rather than merely force Clinton to the left — which he has — he has held his own in the race, losing by a hair in the Iowa caucuses, winning the New Hampshire primary and now seems poised to campaign until the party convention this summer. The huge Clinton machine, in place for over a year, and her lock on the superdelegates that comprise a significant portion of the nomination process, make her hard to beat. Clinton backers insist that the U.S. will not elect a socialist, even a Democratic socialist, as president. Sanders counters that head-to-head polls show him beating the top GOP nominees. This battle will continue.
The GOP race is larger and more confusing, but it is winnowing — in the past two weeks five candidates dropped out — and it too is driven by the same forces. The Republican race has divided into two lanes, the establishment and the non-establishment candidates. That division is less clear than among the Democrats since two of the Republicans, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, are only moderates when compared to their rivals, and one of the antiestablishment candidates, Cruz, is a sitting U.S. senator.
But there is no missing the anger and animus that drives the voters and the campaign of front-runner Trump, who has taken at least the rhetoric of politics to vulgar new lows; his performance at the Saturday night debate was a model of boorishness. His ideas are equally difficult to stomach: his calls for banning all Muslims from the U.S. and torturing the families of terrorists defy logic and humanity. The lack of detail surrounding his proposals gives the phrase “faith-based politics” new meaning.
The GOP establishment (and its candidates) are unwilling to take on Trump directly and risk alienating his supporters. As a result, the businessman has been largely unscathed as other candidates target each other. Trump continues to enjoy high approval ratings and has been developing a machine that makes him a genuinely national political force. The assumption that his appeal would dissipate and his candidacy self-destruct has proven false. The establishment is making peace with the idea that Trump will be the nominee; talk of the party’s ability to do business with him is proof.
Trump and Sanders are riding the fear and uncertainty that consume a middle class worried about its future. While the mainstream of both parties argues that those candidates cannot appeal to the masses in the center of the electorate that ultimately determine the winner in a presidential campaign, Trump and Sanders insist that they can motivate voters that traditionally sit out elections to turn up and vote. (Cruz’s campaign is built on the assumption that he can do the same with evangelical voters.) The Nevada and South Carolina primaries to be held in the weeks ahead could pull the rug out from under Sanders, but the GOP battles will go on for some time.