If you had asked any political consultant in July of 2015 to describe the upcoming presidential election in the United States, there is certainly one word they would have used: dynasty. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, the clear candidates to beat at that time, had been part of American politics for decades. Jeb had been governor of Florida when his brother became president, and was just as determined to share the seat their father had occupied. Hillary had been a powerful figure as first lady in the 1990s, particularly in her role as champion for the health care reform that ultimately failed. Her later roles as Senator and Secretary of State only furthered her establishment appeal, as did her strong performance in the 2008 presidential election. It was of course assumed that additional candidates would enter the race from both parties to offer nominal resistance to these candidates, however no one could have imagined how drastically the narrative of the election would shift at the beginning of last summer from that of a dynasty campaign to a disastrous campaign.
In a short, xenophobic rant in June, Donald Trump quickly became the new face of the Republican campaign. With this speech, in which he claimed governments all over the world were purposefully sending only their worst citizens to the United States – “they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists” – the billionaire tapped into a long history of racial resentment within the Republican party. A history which many members of the party have been attempting to move past for years. In fact, most Republican leaders had been spending the start of the 21st century moving purposefully in the opposite direction – focusing on passing bipartisan immigration reform and actively recruiting more women and minorities into the party. This push had also been seen in the early months of the primary campaign, as Jeb Bush had been touting his bilingual family while Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz each spoke to their Cuban family backgrounds. So much progress has been made, in fact, that many downplayed Trump’s comments at the time as inconsequential and out of touch. Unfortunately, Trump and his fiercely loyal supporters have proven the American political elite to be drastically wrong – leading prominent political journalists to ask “Can the Republican party survive Donald Trump?”.
On the opposite side, another equally unlikely candidate has emerged to challenge the front runner status of Hillary Clinton: an elderly socialist Senator from Vermont by the name of Bernie Sanders. In his announcement, and subsequent campaign messages, Bernie Sanders has been as much a vocal critic of the current state of affairs in American politics as has Donald Trump. While Donald Trump has focused on the country’s alleged fall from grace under the Obama presidency, and on the potential for such drastic measures as registration of Muslims within the United States to further secure America’s borders, Bernie Sanders has focused his message on the plight of the American middle class and the drastic levels of income inequality we find in this country. Both candidates claim that the wealthy have too much influence on America’s electoral system, though one is a multi-billionaire who has admitted to using the political process to his own benefit while the other has turned down the offer of millions in campaign contributions from large fundraising organizations. And while Trump has rekindled the racism that was so prevalent in the 1960s Republican party, Sanders has been tapping into the idealism of the Kennedy Democrats of the same era: campaigning on promises of tuition-free public universities, Medicare for all, and paid family leave among many others. As Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, put it: “Essentially, America faces a choice between authoritarian populism, represented by Donald Trump, and reform populism, represented by Bernie Sanders.”
As Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have pushed the platforms of their parties further to the ideological extremities, Republicans are jostling for position to be the number two contender after the all-important primary season begins in just a few weeks. After a campaign season that started with the most contenders of any party ticket in history (16), most of the strongest Republican contenders are the ‘outcast’ candidates: neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former businesswoman Carly Fiorina, as well as junior senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Governors Chris Christie and John Kasich are still trying to make their voices heard, but are far behind in the polls. Other establishment candidates such as governors Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker have already dropped out of the race, and as mentioned Jeb Bush is still lagging behind as well. Currently, the major polling groups have Donald Trump with a healthy lead in New Hampshire, while Ted Cruz is fighting for the top polling spot in Iowa. It is clear that the Republican field will narrow significantly in the middle of February – likely by as much as half of the field – what is less clear is who these candidates will rally behind after their exit. Donald Trump has certainly not made any friends over the past six months on his rise to stardom, and it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which primary dropouts turn around to support the businessman. This would leave Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to contend to be the Trump alternative, while Bush’s astounding amount of Super PAC money will allow him to stay in the race as a nonfactor candidate. And yet the outcome most consultants agree would be worst for the Republican party is still possible: Trump could win enough early delegates to make a strong bid to become the party’s nominee without the support of any other major candidate
On the Democratic ticket, it remains to be seen how Hillary Clinton will fare in the early states, but it is clear there are no other major contenders for the nomination other than Bernie Sanders. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia was one of the last vestiges of the Blue Dog Democrats, a brand of fiscally progressive but socially conservative southerners that were most prevalent in the 1980s and 90s, and dropped out early. Governor Lincoln Chafee also dropped out of the race early after seeing little momentum for his campaign, and while Governor Martin O’Malley is still in the race he is barely registering in the polls of potential voters. The main question for the Democrats will be centered around voter mobilization. While Hillary Clinton has surpassed Bernie Sanders in terms of total dollars raised, Bernie has reached more individual contributors (over 2 million) than any other candidate in history – and the campaigns are only halfway to completion. Clinton holds a comfortable lead in the polls among women voters, while Bernie Sanders is currently starting a national push to appear at Historically Black Colleges and Universities in order to embrace more minority voters and expand his appeal. As the first votes cast in Iowa get closer, the polls on the Democratic side continue to show the two candidates in a dead heat. So while the election so far has been anything but what political experts expected, it has certainly been interesting and it is sure to become even more so as the primary voting process really kicks off.