Remember when commentators thought the 2016 presidential election cycle would be dull? It was supposed to be dominated by the fundraising prowess of a Bush and a Clinton in a 1992 rematch of two famous political families.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, we have witnessed one of the most peculiar presidential races in modern memory. What is going on? There are at least three repeated themes in the political commentary on 2016. Here they are:
Angry Voters Rise Again
Perhaps 2016 is like 1992 when millions of Americans were frustrated with traditional politics and chose to support Ross Perot, the Texas businessman who promised simple solutions to national problems. The Perot voters, angry and unpredictable, were drawn to the ultimate outsider. Maybe part of the American electorate is angry again and rather than looking to a third-party is voting for unusual candidates in the regular party primaries.
Working-class families have suffered decades of stagnant wages, global competition and technological change that have shaken economic expectations and middle class aspirations—fertile ground for Donald Trump. Young progressives, enthusiastic about Barack Obama in 2008, may be disappointed by his modest accomplishments, still burdened by college debt and languishing in a sluggish recovery from the great recession—an opening for Bernie Sanders.
The angry voter analysis assumes that the presidential selection process is actually working well. If unlikely candidates are getting unexpected support, it must be evidence that voters are restless and responding to voices that express their views.
There is a second possibility.
A Media Circus Gets A Clown
The complicated process by which we winnow presidential hopefuls has a long history of problems and predictions of disaster. The voters who show up at caucuses and primaries are more liberal on the Democratic side, more conservative in Republican contests, and don’t represent the nation as a whole.
Sometimes a protest candidate, like Bernie Sanders, can show surprising strength without ever having broad national support. Sometimes an odd candidate, like Donald Trump, can be a “winner” because, in a large field of contenders, a fraction of the vote (in an already unrepresentative process) constitutes a victory.
Moreover, modern presidential races get saturation coverage from the 24-hour news channels. This creates a magnet for those who may want a book contract, speaking fees, ego gratification, an audience for idiosyncratic ideas or invitations for more television appearances. Publicity-seeking candidates are nothing new. But this year the Republicans have an unusually skillful celebrity who has monopolized the media and managed to become the unlikely likely nominee.
This media circus analysis assumes that the presidential selection system is broken because it fails to faithfully reflect the sentiments of most citizens and invites the shenanigans of charlatans. There may well be angry voters, but in this analysis their views and candidate preferences get too much weight in a flawed nomination process.
There is a third line of analysis.
Rupture in the Republican Ranks
Some commentators speculate that something momentous is taking place in one of our national political parties. The Democrats are having an ordinary, if sometimes ornery, argument between progressives and pragmatists, but the Republicans are in real trouble. Their party is an awkward coalition of prosperous fiscal conservatives, evangelical critics of social change and tea party rebels without longstanding political connections to country club or church. Maybe that coalition is coming apart.
There were warning signs that this might happen. In recent senate races, some traditional Republican candidates lost primaries to tea party or evangelical challengers who subsequently suffered defeat in the general election. One Delaware senate contender felt compelled to announce that she was not a witch; others in Indiana and Missouri made comments about rape, conception and abortion that were stunningly strange. Those kinds of unconventional candidates, once problematic only in state party races, may now be standing in the spotlight on the national stage.
This analysis does not conclude that the presidential selection system is broken. Instead, it observes that storms within one of the political parties are so strong that the groups currently under the Republican umbrella may no longer be able to stand together.
Many establishment Republicans don’t want Ted Cruz or Donald Trump to be the party’s nominee, but at this late date they may not have the power to steer the nomination to a more mainstream candidate, and could not do so without generating enormous controversy.
It may end up that the most quoted Republican from 2016 will be Bobby Jindal. He entered and left the pool of presidential candidates with hardly a ripple, but back in 2013 he gave a prescient speech in which he urged fellow Republicans to “stop being the stupid party.” They didn’t listen. A major political party on its way to nominating Donald Trump for the presidency, or on its way to blocking his nomination in a floor fight at the national convention, provides a nearly perfect definition of a stupid party.
A version of this essay appeared in the Roanoke Times on May 1, 2016.