james debate
james debate

Monday 27 April 2015

It's been a busy month in US politics as things finally start to get underway for the 2016 Presidential election. The big announcement, of course, was the widely anticipated launch of Hillary Clinton's campaign, but recent weeks have also seen the official confirmation of both the Rand Paul and Marco Rubio campaigns, both of whom are expected to be major contenders in the Republican nomination. The race for the White House is well and truly on.

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So at this early stage we decided to take an overview: what are the dynamics taking shape at the root of this contest and who are the big players going to be? Lets start with the voters.

The Voters

The voters simply can not make up their mind. A Democratic wave election in 2008 was followed by a Republican wave in 2010, which was followed by a Democratic wave in 2012, and another Republican wave in 2014. The United States electorate has seemingly been swinging wildly from left to right from one election to the next. The ostensible reason for this is the changing demographic make up of the voters between Presidential and midterm elections, and it's arguably the number one factor to who will prevail next time around.

So who will be voting in 2016? America has a notoriously low voter turnout for a developed democracy, exacerbated by a number of factors such as holding election day during the week, the fact that a number of cynical politicians see an advantage in disenfranchising certain demographics, and of course good old fashioned voter apathy.

Effectively this means that elections typically disproportionately represent the kind of demographics who have free time on a week day, who are more prone to fanaticism, and who can't be disenfranchised. In other words, the elderly, the religious, and white males respectively.

As you may have realized, the above demographics tend to vote heavily in favour of the conservative Republican Party, which sheds some light as to why elections are usually so close despite the fact that Americans as a whole somewhat consistently seem to favour the left-leaning Democratic Party. The numbers imply that if everyone in America voted, the Democrats would win most elections, even in states typically considered "red".

This goes a long way towards explaining the violent swings between recent elections. Those demographics turn out consistently for all elections, the total vote numbers for Republicans in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014 are notably consistent. Meanwhile the opposite groups, young people, academics, and minorities/women, voted in record numbers in 2008 and 2012, but were almost totally absent in 2010 and 2014.

The generally accepted wisdom holds that Americans by and large care very little about Congress, and thus these groups only turn up in Presidential election years. But then again it may simply be the effect of Obama only being on the ballot in those years, with his famously efficient get out the vote operation.

Either way the turnout among these heavily left-leaning voter blocs has been swinging wildly between midterm and Presidential election years. In 2012 60% of those aged under thirty voted Democrat, 80% of minorities voted Democrat. A whopping 70% of academics and scientists vote Democrat. These voting blocs didn't turn up in 2014, but it would seem that who wins in 2016 will depend on whether they do this time. Ultimately the big question that needs to be asked is will these groups turn up just because it is a Presidential election year, or was it specifically Obama and his impressive operation that got these voters to the polls?

The Parties

In the marvelous mess that is American politics, there are only two parties that matter. The other minority parties are so completely invisible that they can only dream of having the electoral influence of those in a multi-party system like in the UK, and most Americans probably don't even notice they exist.

Democratic Party

The minority party in both chambers of Congress for the first time in a decade, but they still have the all important Presidency thanks to two-term winner Barack Obama who despite whatever else anyone might think of him, has shown himself to be a vote-winning machine. 

A Presidential election year will offer better demographics and, in contrast to 2014, most of the Senate races are being held in blue leaning states. The Democrats will therefore realistically be aiming to win the White House and the Senate. The House of representatives, however, is another matter. The lower chamber of Congress has been gerrymandered so insanely beyond recognition that even in a year like 2012 where the Democrats won a strong majority of the vote, they still ended up with a tiny minority of the seats. The House elections have been rigged such that there is no even slim chance of flipping it until the next time districts are redrawn, even if the Democrats won an historically huge majority of the vote. Democracy at work ladies and gentlemen.

But let's give the Democrats their due credit as well, they have shown themselves to be astonishingly incompetent at running a political campaign, with the exception of Barack Obama and his team. They went in to the 2014 elections with a reasonably popular President, an economy booming for the first time in a decade, and an opposition party that had cynically shut down the Government a year previous, has the lowest favourability of any American political party ever, and that is filled with politicians making headlines for statements about "legitimate rape" and whether or not they are in fact a witch, and yet the Democrats still lost by a landslide. The voters can't take all the blame, that takes a very special kind of incompetence from the Democrats.

Their campaign in 2010 made little mention of saving the economy from the brink of total collapse, or the expansion of healthcare to 30 million Americans. Instead they went around handing people key rings saying "don't give them back the keys!" with reference to the Republicans. After losing heavily the party then "rebranded", which consisted entirely of changing the logo from a donkey to a big "D" in a blue circle. This inexplicably lame style of campaign gimmicks, mixed with a total lack of any substance really makes you question where they find these campaign managers. 

So next year, when Obama is off the ballot, do the Democrats have anyone comparable to get voters to the polls, or are they going to be depending on the same out of touch washouts who were in charge of the midterm campaigns? 

Republican Party

For a party that controls both chambers of Congress, the Republicans have made surprisingly little attempt to do any governing. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, it's difficult to deny that the current GOP strategy for the moment appears to be simply to block anything from passing, aside from the odd symbolic vote of dissent against Obama that they have no intention of actually making law. 

It's easy to see why. No one pays attention to Congress. If nothing gets done and things go bad, the President will take the blame, and likewise if the Republican Congress passes anything good, the President will get the credit, as Clinton did for balancing the budget through the Republican Congress in the 1990s. It's a very sad state of affairs that politics in America has sunk this low, but that is the nature of the game nowadays. Indeed the Democratic Congress under Bush abused their position in a similar (albeit far less extreme) manner.

Ultimately the Republican Party needs the Presidency, they need to be in a position to show they can actually lead. 2016 is a perfect opportunity for them. It is exceedingly rare for a party to win three Presidential elections in a row, and the Democrats have never done it. So history suggests that the Republicans should win. And yet the oddsmakers currently have them as distant second favourites. The truth is that the Republican party have some pretty unprecedented obstacles to overcome if they want to return to the White House in the near future.

After 2008 the GOP decided that the way to bounce back was to focus on the base, effectively handing over the reigns to the more extreme elements on the far right. The focus was on ideological purity, almost religious levels of siege mentality, to even dignify the opposition with discussion would be considered a defeat in the new order. Now there are plenty of perfectly sensible economically focused conservatives in the moderate wing of the party who would love to work across the aisle and compromise to get things done, but their hands are tied by the hardliners on the far right. Just look at how John Boehner, speaker of the House, had to fend off potential mutiny within his party just for passing a budget, the most basic function of Congress. 

This really is the core of the Republican Party's issues for 2016. The result of this shift of power within the party is that to even win the party's nomination, the moderate candidates have to say things that appeal to the extremists, but usually make them less electable in the eyes of the larger public. Mitt Romney is the perfect example of this. A very intelligent, accomplished man with a record he can be proud of. Romney is so liberal compared to the new average of his party that he essentially had to disavow everything positive he had ever done and make awful, quasi-bigoted statements that he can't possibly have believed. It (just about) won over the hardliners in his party, but cost him big in the general election.

Such is the single minded zeal of the Republican Party these days that to even admit that they need to move to the centre would seem like something of a defeat, but that's exactly what they'll have to do. The party's concession to the hard right might have brought them some short term success in the midterms, but ultimately it could end up costing them the big prize.

The Candidates

Democratic Party

Hillary Clinton
When it comes to the Democrats' prospects, there has only ever been one likely candidate, and that is former First Lady Hillary Clinton. 

Clinton has a wealth of experience from her time in the Senate and as Secretary of State in the current administration. She is eminently qualified to be President, and sits in that comfy centre-left position that plays well in general elections. She has the moderate appeal to independents, and is progressive enough to get the backing of the left wing of the party. It's cynical to say but the fact that she's a woman will also help; the Democratic advantage among women over the Republican party is lethal, and there are plenty of women who would love to see the first female President.

On the surface then it would seem all the stars are aligning, qualified, vetted, ideologically mainstream, and representing a landmark in American politics to boot. It's easy to see why she is the heavy front runner in her party. But she has her share of issues too. She is the ultimate Washington insider, and will be inextricably linked with this Obama administration, so much will depend on how he is perceived in a year's time, and she will be hard pressed to present herself as any different to politics as usual.

At the moment there really isn't anyone else in the party who looks even capable of winning the primary, let alone the general election, and the majority of Americans would probably have difficulty naming more than one or two other potential candidates, if that. But then the same was also true in 2008, and yet she ended up losing to a previous unknown in Barack Obama. Right now she is the presumptive Democratic nominee, but a lot can change in the next year as the other contenders become more well known among the public.

Joe Biden
Vice President Biden lost his 2008 Presidential campaign hopelessly. In fact until he was picked as Obama's VP, something of a surprise choice, few people were probably even aware of who he was. Now after eight years as Vice President he will be in a much stronger position should he run, but that still doesn't make him a great candidate.

Biden is charismatic enough, vetted, and experienced, but the fact is he is just not that popular. He comes off as something of a clown, frequently putting his foot in his mouth, and is not necessarily taken seriously by the American public. Biden is also something of a Democrat stereotype, the prissy intellectual. Then there is his age. Clinton will be old enough on inauguration day 2017 at 69, Biden will be 74. Surely he won't run for more than one term, which means no incumbent advantage in 2020.

Biden is polling second best right now because he has name recognition, but he simply won't win a general election unless the opposition candidate is someone extreme. Expect to see him fade away in the primary when the other contenders become well known, if he even runs at all.

Elizabeth Warren
The progressive darling of the moment, Warren has long been a champion for consumer rights and "the 99%". Serving previously as Chairperson of the Congressional Oversight Committee and as special advisor for Obama's new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren was elected to the Senate in 2012. Also considered to be a foremost legal scholar, Warren brings with her a long list of credentials and experience.

Warren is the ultimate liberal firebrand, continually beating the drum of higher taxes on the wealthy, breaking up the banks, prosecuting the bankers (though light on details of what for exactly), and lots of welfare. The left calls it financial equality, the right calls it class warfare, as always the accurate depiction is somewhere in between.

The problem with Warren is that such is her recent obsession with populist rabble raising that her good arguments often get lost amid the superficial sound bites. The Consumer Protection Bureau was a great idea, but Joe Public isn't going to be fired up by talk of debt reform and mortgage-servicing, they want to hear about "wealthy elites" screwing them over, and "criminal bankers" who got off scott-free.

Elizabeth Warren is quickly becoming a big name, but she's getting there through extreme rhetoric and empty buzzwords. Even if she did somehow fire up the far left enough to win the nomination her wilder ideas are far too off-putting to win independents in the general election. Then there's her general demeanor, she comes off as something of a kook, which plays perfectly into the extreme, wacky image that her opponents want to publicize. 

At the moment Warren claims not to be interested in running, but if she does it's hard to see her mounting a real challenge for the White House.

Martin O'Malley
O'Malley is one of those candidates that has been talked about for years as a Presidential candidate, and yet no one is still really sure who he is or why he demands such hype. 

On the surface there's certainly no reason he couldn't run. Good looking guy, charismatic enough, former Governor (Presidential elections love Governors), and yet O'Malley at the moment doesn't look anything like a potential spoiler in the Hillary parade.

O'Malley has officially declared that he is preparing to run, but what does he really have going for him? Few were particularly impressed by his stuttering convention speech in 2012, and even in his home state of Maryland his popularity is low. So low in fact that he was succeeded by a Republican in deep blue Maryland.

The speculation is that O'Malley might try to out-liberal Hillary in a play for the party's disillusioned progressives, but will that be enough to win over the super-delegates? O'Malley looks certain to run, but he's surely a no-hoper.

Bernie Sanders
Bernie is a good man, well liked both in his home state of Vermont and nationally (among liberals anyway). As an Independent who merely caucuses with the Democrats, he is one of the few politicians of whom no one can question his commitment to his principles. Even where he lies far from the mainstream he stands up for what he truly believes and it has earned him the respect and support of many.

Bernie's problem is that he makes Warren look moderate. He is a self-described Socialist, and we all know how well that plays in America. Sanders also looks likely to run, but there is simply no way he can win, all he will do is serve to drive the conversation to the left.

Vice President
Of course it is far too early to seriously speculate who Hillary, or whoever else wins, is going to tap as their running mate, but perhaps we can form some educated guesses based on the notable absentees from the running.

Many expected New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to run this year, but following Hillary's announcement that now appears very unlikely, and was quick to throw his support behind her. Cuomo is hugely popular and seen as one of the brightest politicians in the party, and a VP stint will help his own national ambitions. But there's no way the Democrats will throw up an all New York ticket, that would be suicide. The same argument can dismiss fellow New Yorker Kristen Gillibrand, who had also been heavily tipped for a 2016 run.

The ideal pick for a Clinton running mate would be a man, someone younger than her and full of energy who can really blaze the campaign trail. Preferably someone from a red or purple state. The obvious choice is Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro. 

Castro is generally considered to be one of the brightest lights in the Democratic Party, showing Obama-esque oratory brilliance at the 2012 convention keynote speech, to go with his minority and red state appeal. Such is Castro's potential that Obama pulled him out of Texas, a state where he is unlikely to win higher office, to come work in his cabinet, giving him the national level experience that he will need for a future VP, and beyond that a Presidential run. It certainly looks like Castro is being groomed for higher office, could Hillary's ticket be the next step?

Republican Party

Jeb Bush
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is currently considered the front-runner of the Republican pool, although if 2008 and 2012 have shown us anything that is unlikely to remain the case through the entire nomination process.

Jeb is also, of course, a member of the Bush political dynasty, with both his father and older brother having served as President previously. This has both positives and negatives. For all the talk of democracy, America loves its dynasties, and Jeb's status arguably gives him the widest appeal of all the Republican potential nominees; the party establishment like him, and so do the hardliner conservatives. Crucially he has the infrastructure and experience to rely on, and his time in Florida with a hispanic wife gives him much sought after minority appeal. He is very well set up for a serious Presidential run.

But at the same time, his brother is still very unpopular, and a plurality of Americans still blame him more for all the bad things in the world than Obama, the guy who has actually been President for the past 8 years. W is widely regarded among the worst Presidents in history, and while Jeb has long been considered the smarter Bush, W's failings are still fresh in the memory, and will seriously drag on Jeb, if not in the primary then in the general election.

The warning signs are there. Despite having great name recognition, Jeb is still fairly unpopular. That's a hard position to come back from when you're already a known quantity. Instead what will serve to Jeb's advantage is his status as the "safe candidate", the one who scares Independents the least. In 2008 and 2012 the Republicans flirted with hardcore right wing conservatives before settling on the "safe candidate" that they thought could win the general election. If they do the same this year then Jeb is probably the safe candidate.

Scott Walker
Scott Walker is one of the party's biggest up-and-comers, and possibly Jeb Bush's biggest threat. Walker has shown himself to be both a champion for conservative ideals, and a lightning rod for criticism from the left wing.

Best known for his crackdown on union rights, Walker's stance earned him the ignominy of being the only US Governor to be recalled, a recall election which he nevertheless subsequently won. 
He tends similarly far to the right on most issues, from abortion to same-sex marriage, immigration and voter ID laws. In spite of this he is still seen among his party as a fairly mainstream candidate, largely because of his success in a generally blue state like Wisconsin.

Unfortunately for Walker, the rest of America doesn't see him that way, and he has among the most polarized favourability numbers of any candidate. His name recognition is still relatively low so that could change, but at the moment even if he wins the Republican nomination he could have a real problem with Independents.

Walker has been polling very well among Republicans in these early days, and right now is the leader in the all important Iowa poll. A few strong results in the early primaries and he could fast find himself becoming the front runner. It would certainly make things interesting.

Marco Rubio
This year's most prominent representative of the hard right, Rubio has been tipped for a while as the future of the Republican Party, and it's easy to see why. Young, charismatic, wins elections in arguably the most important Swing-State, appeals to Hispanic voters, and crucially identifies with conservative values.

It's no surprise then to see Rubio surging in the polls of late. The base already loves him and the Republican establishment is starting to warm to him as a legitimate candidate. But is he electable in a general election?

For sure, Rubio's Tea Party connections will hurt him in a Presidential election year, but despite this affiliation he was still able to hugely outperform his fellow Republican Senate candidates in 2010, a year where the Tea Party fared poorly in the Senate. This suggests he has broader appeal than your typical conservative Republican, without sacrificing any of the base support.  Rubio is well liked, with broad appeal, and that makes him a tantalizing option for a Republican party that seems to be struggling in recent years to find a candidate who is both electable and conservative enough.

Still, as he becomes more well known by the Independent voters he will face scrutiny for his record, which is among the most conservative in Congress. Rubio has a history of taking stances that may endear him to his base, but will not play well with the rest of America. One of his first campaign promises this year has been to reopen Guantanamo Bay if Obama succeeds in closing it, a mystifying early focal point for his campaign that can only really appeal to the most hardcore of W Bush apologists. His continued intransigence on gay rights and immigration, at a time when even the Republicans are generally starting to accept the need to adapt, provides further fuel for his critics.

The implication appears to be either that Rubio hasn't fully comprehended the reality of running in a general election, or he cynically thinks voters are inattentive enough that they'll forget the extreme things he says during primary season. To us this screams of his inexperience on the national stage. Rubio may be a frontrunner for the GOP nomination, but suggests gaping vulnerabilities if he goes into the final round.

Rand Paul
One of the first to declare his candidacy for 2016. Rand Paul is, of course, the son of the iconic perennial Presidential candidate Ron Paul. Ever the libertarian ideologue, Ron Paul  had never been able to turn his fervent online fanbase and appeal to young voters into a significant electoral advantage, and typically was seen as a party outsider. 

Rand Paul has taken a different tactic, embedding himself much more closely into the mainstream of the Republican Party. This has the benefit of potentially making him the real primary contender that his father never was, but at the cost of the hardcore following that Ron Paul had assembled. Even then, can he shake the outsider label?

So it's a case of two steps forward, two steps back for the Paul family as Rand tries to have his cake and eat it too. Rand Paul want's the libertarian fanaticism his father had, plus the mainstream credibility needed to win a national election, he could well end up with neither. 

Ted Cruz
Every election needs one; a Sarah Palin, a Rick Santorum. This year's award for least electable candidate has to go to Ted Cruz, who has a long track record of making dangerously loopy, extremist statements. He is also very unpopular, even among his own party. There are people up and down the country who wrongly state that Ted Cruz is a major contender. He's not, he will lose.

Chris Christie
Once upon a time Chris Christie was considered one of the big favourites for the Republican nomination. He was seen as incredibly likable, charismatic, effortlessly able to outwit opponents and make himself look like a leader no matter what the situation. It also helped that he was extremely popular even in a deep blue state, and in particular with independents. 

There had always been concerns among the far right that Christie was not conservative enough, exacerbated by the 2012 election where he was accused by his own party of cosying up to Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. But still, there it seemed was a politician who could really challenge in a general election, taking the lions share of independents as well as a fair number of Democrats. This is no longer considered to be the case.

Christie has taken on a huge amount of (completely deserved) bad press, from accusations of bullying and misconduct to one of the most astonishingly awful scandals in political history. Christie has so far managed to shield himself personally from the above actions which were so flagrantly illegal, irresponsible (and by the way caused deaths) that they make Watergate look like a good idea. Had a direct connection to Christie been proven he almost certainly would have been ousted from office, but even as it stands he has taken a huge hit in his poll numbers, to the point where he can no longer be considered even vaguely viable for either the nomination or general election.

Vice President
It's much harder to predict who might be the VP pick when we have no idea who will be top of the ticket, but there are certain logical assumptions we can make which might help narrow things down.

In each of the last two elections, Republicans have opted for moderate, safe candidates, who have then gone on to pick a more conservative candidate to appeal to the base. Assuming a similar tactic in 2016, that would mean we are likely to see someone who is perceived to be somewhat centrist, like Bush, choosing a VP with more conservative credentials. Could we see an all Florida ticket of Bush/Rubio? Could well do, it would play well in that crucial Swing-State.

Alternatively we might see the party push for one of it's more exciting young outsiders to give them national exposure ahead of future elections, someone like a Tom Cotton, Cory Gardner or Mia Love.

Anyway that's enough speculation at this stage. The early view sees Hillary as the heavy favourite for her primary, but this will undoubtedly change as her competition becomes more well known among the voters. Meanwhile the Republican field is still relatively open. Precedent suggests it should be the Republicans' year to win, but finding a candidate who can beat Hillary is far from certain.

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