WASHINGTON, DC – Those having trouble making sense of the American presidential election campaign need not worry: it doesn’t make any sense. The 2016 race is shaping up as the weirdest in modern times, owing not just to the number of candidates – currently 14, with two or three more expected to announce soon – but also to the nature of their candidacies.
The usual question posed about presidential aspirants is: Why is he running? This year, the answer seems to be: Why not? As long as one is not too attached to one’s dignity, there is little to lose and a lot to be gained from running. A failed presidential campaign, even a disastrous one, can lead to higher speaking fees, richer book contracts, or a television gig. Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee both failed to win the Republican nomination, but secured seats on cable talk shows.
On the Democratic side, the question asked in political circles these days is not whether Hillary Clinton can win the nomination, but whether she can lose it. The answer is yes – in the sense that anything is possible. Nobody I know thinks she is likely to stumble so badly; still, the Clintons are known to be accident-prone, and they have been full of surprises – scandals and scandalettes – since they first appeared on the national scene a quarter-century ago. This is why many Democrats back her without enthusiasm.
Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, inspires enthusiasm. Sanders is riding the leftist wave in Democratic politics, and while many of his proposals may not be able to stand up against hard questioning (how, for example, would he fund his plan to make college tuition free for everyone?), he has so far managed to avoid any serious challenge to them.
Sanders’s main advantage is that he comes off as authentic – a candidate, who, like the billionaire businessman Ross Perot in 1992, “tells it like it is” – while Clinton very much does not. She seems packaged and cautious, slow to get around to a position on some key issues, such as trade, that divide Democrats. For the moment, however, nobody can predict whether Sanders will be able to convert the impressive crowds he has been drawing into electoral strength, or even how long he will remain in fashion.
The latest entry into the Democratic race, Jim Webb – who has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Navy, and Senator from Virginia – has talent, but lacks steadiness. Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, has promise, but has yet to catch on. And Lincoln Chaffee, a former governor of Rhode Island, is an ethereal mystery. None is likely to make more than a fleeting impact, if that. Clinton has fame, money, and organization – advantages that only she (or perhaps her husband) can throw away.
The Republican race, by contrast, remains wide open. At the beginning of the year, the conventional wisdom was that if Jeb Bush threw his hat into the ring, he would be the odds-on favorite. He looked like a shoo-in on paper, but candidates don’t run on paper. Will he prove nimble enough to maneuver through the Republican nominating process, given that its early stages are heavily tilted to the right? Evangelical Christians play a crucial role in the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the quest for the nomination, but putting too much effort into pleasing them can make a candidate unelectable. Bush shows signs of skipping Iowa, but then he would “have to” win New Hampshire.
Bush’s interest in running was enough to convince Mitt Romney, who lost the 2012 election to Barack Obama, not to try a third time. But even the supposedly formidable Bush name was not enough to convince younger, scrappier candidates to step aside.
Ambitious young pols like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker currently are viewed as Bush’s strongest rivals, but both will be facing increased scrutiny and testing. Rand Paul enjoyed a period of buzz, but that seems to have faded, as his dovish brand of libertarianism clashes with a party that leans toward social conservatism and interventionism abroad.
I seem to have been one of the few journalists who from the outset didn’t think that Donald Trump’s entry into the presidential race was funny. Trump is not remotely qualified to be president, but he is no joke. And, sure enough, even in his announcement speech, he demonstrated his ability to appeal to Americas’ dark side.
Trump’s offensive comments about immigrants from Mexico – “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” – sent his popularity soaring, to the mortification of many Republican leaders.
Those leaders have good reason to be panicked by Trump’s rise: They know that if they can’t find a way to attract more Hispanic voters than Romney did in 2012, they will have a poor chance of winning the presidency. Trump’s comments may have cost him some of his commercial ties, but anyone who thinks he doesn’t know what he’s doing should think again.
No one knows right now whether Trump will flame out or prove to have staying power, but one thing is clear: he is not the only one injecting strangeness into the nomination contest. One of the more bizarre aspects of this election is the success of Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and political neophyte. His extreme views on homosexuality – he has likened it to bestiality and claimed that spending time in prison makes people gay – has resonated with a swath of the Republican electorate, making him a real contender in Iowa.
The 2016 presidential election campaign not only has more candidates than ever; it also has the highest proportion in memory who are flat-out unqualified for the job. And some of them are doing very well at this point. Many observers will remain mystified; few will be bored.
Elizabeth Drew is the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall. (This article has been originally published in Project Syndicate on July 10, 2015.)