You need quite a long scorecard to keep track of the people running for president these days. As in 2012, the number is disproportionately high on the Republican side. This time around the number of Republicans running is even higher. As of today there are eleven officially declared candidates: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Rick Perry and Jeb Bush. Unannounced candidates will likely include Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and John Kasich. Fox News and CNN get to figure out how to put them all on a debate stage. As a practical matter they should have two or three debates with subsets of the candidates at each. That way at least there is some chance of a debate.
But will any of them say anything that truly distinguished them from the other candidates? With the exceptions of Rand Paul (who recently tried to kill the Patriot Act) and George Pataki (a suspiciously moderate former governor of New York state) the answer is pretty much “no”. The rest are all cut from the same cloth; they accept the same orthodoxy and thus all kind of blend into the debate stage together. Some are slightly more socially conservative than others, but even Republicans will have a hard time finding any meaningful differences between them.
Some of these candidates could at least be laughed off the stage as simply not credible or for suffering from terminal foot in mouth disease. It appears that shame is no barrier to running for president:
- Carly Fiorina made a mess during her tenure as Hewlett Packard’s CEO. Despite this and never having held a political office, but she thinks she can lead the country.
- Shortly after the death of his son Beau to brain cancer recently, Ted Cruz joked about the Vice President.
- Ben Carson opined that prison makes men gay, as if being a victim of rape in prison makes someone gay. He also said that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen since slavery. Presumably it is worse than two world wars and the Holocaust.
- Mike Huckabee, referencing Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, says it would have been convenient to pretend to be a woman when he was growing up so he could have gone into the women’s showers.
- Rick Santorum, supposedly a devout Catholic, said the pope should shut up about climate change because he’s not a scientist, presumably ignorant that the pope worked as a chemist before joining the priesthood.
So far at least Democratic candidates haven’t suffered much from this problem. Hillary Clinton has learned the hazards of opening her mouth to the press from past campaigns and largely ignores them with listening tours. The closest crazy candidate is not the “Democratic socialist” Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, whose opinions are actually mainstream. No, it’s Lincoln Chafee, former Rhode Island senator, governor and Republican whose announcement the other day at least managed to draw some attention for some controversial opinions. These included proposals that we should negotiate with the Islamic State and that we should embrace the metric system. (Those of us who remember the 1970s remember how popular moving to the metric system made politicians.) Martin O’Malley is running to Hillary’s left. The exception, if he decides to run, is Jim Webb, the only candidate in either party that could be considered a genuine moderate.
How all this will play out at this time is anyone’s guess. Republican candidates figure they can increase their odds of success with affiliated PACs stuffed full of cash, or by quietly getting the endorsement of well funded billionaires like the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelson. At the other end is Bernie Sanders, whose campaign is funded through lots of small donations, principally from committed liberal activists. While the effect of money on campaigns will doubtless be an issue in the campaign, every candidate will be doing their best to rake in obscenely large campaign contributions, if they can get them.
Eventually though one or more candidates has to break through somehow. Hillary Clinton arguably has already broken through with her wide name recognition and her wide approval among women of all parties. On the Republican side it’s much less clear who will break through. One strategy is to see who can hold on the longest and generally that means the candidate with the most money, i.e. the Jeb Bush strategy. Occasionally a distinct personality will emerge that tickles Republicans. All bets though are off on who this will be. Already sure things (Chris Christie and Jeb Bush) look like has beens. Last time Mitt Romney won in part because he looked like he could bring in non-Republicans. Fewer Republicans are willing to try what they see as a failed strategy. If I had to place my money on a Republican candidate right now, I’d probably go with Scott Walker, who’s not even announced yet.
The general election dynamics are in great flush as well, with much riding on who wins the nomination and the extent to which they excite both their base and moderates. Obama won in 2008 because he was seen as very different and thus exciting. Hillary won’t seem at all fresh but she can draw excitement from women, who comprise a majority of voters anyhow. If so 2016 could be a wave election favoring Democrats. Lacking a wave election much will depend on how enthusiastic voters are in general. Also voter disenfranchisement is a considerable factor and will tend to tilt things toward Republican states where it exists.
What’s unknown is what the sleeper issues, if any, will be. Bernie Sanders seems to speak for a lot of people. He is dragging the Democratic Party in general to the left, which could be dangerous in a general election. But many of his issues are issues most Americans feel strongly about but candidates aren’t seriously addressing, such as a living wage. If voter apathy can be harvested, the political dynamics might move sharply toward the left, at least in the Senate and in presidential races. Gerrymandering has made it unlikely that Democrats can regain the house before 2022.
So who eventually wins really depends on whom we choose to focus on and why. Will we choose to be dazzled by showmanship and money, or will we vote based on common values? Few candidates are speaking to the political moderates. The candidate that can do this and win their party’s nomination is the one likeliest to be our next president.