US Presidential Election 2016: This is an election without precedent, its outcome beyond prediction

After months if not years of speeches, sound bites and shadow boxing, the race for the White House now gets serious with the first primaries a week on Monday. One thing is clear: voters are demanding something different – although heaven knows what

Rupert Cornwell
Friday 22 January 2016 20:23 GMT

There are status quo elections. There are watershed elections. And then there’s the US election of 2016 which defies all categorisation. A Manhattan property tycoon-cum-reality TV star may become the most powerful man in the world; an avowed socialist could take charge in the spiritual home of capitalism. Americans might witness the first truly open nominating convention in 40 years, possibly even the break-up of a once great political party. And 2016 could produce – how banal the thought now seems – the country’s first female president.

So what is going on? The formal calendar is the familiar one, starting in nine days time, when voters in the state of Iowa, small, white, rural and as unrepresentative as they come, take part in the caucuses that kick off election year. Then come votes in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, followed by an accelerating cascade of primaries. July brings the conventions. And finally the big day, 8 November, when America will choose its 45th president, a routine 18 months or so since the first candidacy was declared. But normality ends with the calendar – for the Republican party at least.

Democrats have not been immune to the turmoil, but their contest thus far follows a familiar pattern. Not for the first time, an establishment candidate – in this case Hillary Clinton – is under challenge from the left, in the person of Bernie Sanders. Sometimes the insurgent even wins the nomination, as did George McGovern in the Vietnam-tormented year of 1972.

And this year’s race is now far closer than the perfunctory coronation of Clinton which seemed likely even two months ago. Sanders might well prevail in Iowa and New Hampshire. More often than not however, the insurgent ultimately loses, and that is the expectation this time.

The Republican battle however is in completely uncharted territory. The ordinary voter has risen in mutiny. The Republican elite, of Congressional grandees, rich donors, and national and state party bosses, has utterly lost control of events. The direction of the party, even its very existence, are in question.

So how on earth did it come to this? The answer, at one level, is perfectly simple. The tumult is the political equivalent of the perfect alignment of meteorological forces behind the mammoth snowstorm forecast to engulf the East Coast this weekend. Unlike the snowstorm, however, the Republican crisis has been years in the making.

The party’s voters are in revolt against a system and an establishment that have betrayed them. The seeds of the crisis are contained in the gerrymandering of Congressional districts (indulged in, it should be said, by both parties), as a result of which 90 per cent of seats in the House of Representatives, the Republican’s power base in Washington, are safe.

Thus the real danger to most Republican incumbents is a primary challenge from the right. That threat has in turn pushed the party’s contingent on Capitol Hill to the right. Hence polarisation, and the disappearance of moderates ready to compromise – the only way to get things done in a political system built upon checks and balances.

But the party establishment continued to peddle the fallacy that, even when a Democrat occupied the White House, a Republican majority could create a conservative brave new world of shrunken government, rid of Obamacare, and where illegal immigrants were sent packing. Finally voters have seen through the con, and they are furious.

Then there is the money problem. Blue collar and middle class Americans who vote Republican have woken up to the fact that, as the old joke runs, the American political system is the best that money can buy. And not only is it borderline corrupt. Congress seems to respond not to the needs of the people, but to the interests of those of the corporations and lobbying groups who finance the campaigns of its members. Small wonder “Washington” is the dirtiest word in the political lexicon, or that Congress is less popular than Communism and colonoscopies.

And into this poisonous brew stir a third ingredient. American elections are usually festivals of hope and optimism. But for Republicans, fear rules: fear of immigrants; fear of terrorism; fear of lost jobs and economic decline; fear, to put it in a nutshell, that America is going down the tubes. Combine all these elements, and what do you get? Donald Trump.

When Trump threw his hat into the ring last June, it seemed merely a vanity candidacy, a short-lived and narcissistic PR exercise that would keep his name, and business interests, in the lights. Instead, he has dominated the campaign, his lead in polls increasing. His showmanship and propensity for speaking the unspeakable earned him free media coverage his rivals would die for. And as the campaign has worn on, he has improved as a campaigner.

Most important, he’s struck a chord. Not just because he understands the belief of white Republican voters that they, the self-perceived salt of the American earth, were being marginalised and forgotten – lost in an ever more multicultural country, where the super-rich and upstart minorities were the priorities. The man who articulated their concerns was moreover someone who had flourished mightily under the system. If he railed at the status quo, he really must have a point.

In doing so, Trump tore up the rule book. After the needlessly protracted, dog-eat-dog Republican primary battle of 2012 that badly wounded the ultimate nominee Mitt Romney, the party changed its primary rules in the hope of securing an early nominee. Instead they’ve secured a shambles.

A plethora of worthy candidates entered the race. Yet if an early nominee is to emerge, that person, as matters now stand, is likely to be either the non-politician Trump or his closest rival, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, saboteur of the establishment from within. A bewildered Republican hierarchy still doesn’t know what to make of Trump. But it knows exactly what it thinks of Cruz. It loathes him.

If neither wins, an open convention is a possibility, a recipe for chaos whose only beneficiaries would be the Democrats. The last time this happened was in 1976, when neither President Gerald Ford nor his ultimately unsuccessful challenger Ronald Reagan had a majority of delegates. Back then such events were called brokered conventions. These days though, the Republican establishment is in no condition to broker anything.

Republican Party chiefs still don’t know what to make of Trump. But they loathe Cruz

In an ordinary year, candidates who were or are state governors would be the ones to benefit, untainted by Washington and boasting genuine executive experience. But it hasn’t happened. Any one of the three governors running – John Kasich of Ohio, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Jeb Bush, formerly of Florida – would make a plausible president. But even if you throw in Marco Rubio, a senator but also an establishment candidate, the four command a combined 30 per cent support in national polls. The wrecking brigade of Trump, Cruz, and the retired neuro-surgeon Ben Carson (who like Trump has never spent a day in elective office in his life) have 60-odd per cent.

For Democrats the standard rules still apply, just. If Clinton, however uninspiring as a candidate, is favourite, that is because voters are expected to reward her experience, her command of the issues, her manifest competence. Not so the Republicans.

Policies don’t extend beyond blood-curdling sound bites or personal insults. Orthodoxy is out of the window, actual political experience is a disqualification. The ruder Trump is, the more popular he becomes. The supposed lesson of Romney’s defeat in 2012, elaborated in various official post-mortems, was that the party had to be nicer to immigrants, minorities and women, all constituencies where Democrats dominate.

Instead, the opposite is happening. Trump has gone furthest of course, with his call for a ban on all Muslim immigrants, but despite some dutiful harrumphing, most of the other candidates are following in his slipstream (the most honourable exception being Jeb Bush).

Money and those evil Super-PACs don’t seem to matter much either. Bush raised over $100m (£70m) before even declaring his candidacy, and much good it’s done him. Billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate, were supposed to be the puppetmasters of the 2016 election. But Charles and David Koch, who planned to pour $900m into the campaign, have publicly bemoaned their lack of influence on proceedings. The Trump operation is basically self-financed, while on the Democratic side, Sanders is breaking all records for small donations.

In a sense, Trump is nothing new. Back in the 1850s, the Know-Nothing Party in the US railed at Irish immigration. In Europe today, populist parties from Ukip to France’s Front National, Austria’s Freedom Party and a host of others have set a course that Trump is following, all of them right-wing middle and working class movements, feeding off fear and disillusion with an established political order which has let them down.

Trump has given the process a dash of American swagger, but his message is the same. “We got $18trn in debt. We got nothing but problems… We have losers. We have people that don’t have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain… The American dream is dead.” And the message appeals not only to Republicans, but an entire stratum of the population.

Indeed, Sanders and Trump have not a little in common. Take the former’s outburst in his last debate with Clinton. “Raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour. The American people want it,” Sanders declared. “Rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, creating 13 million jobs, the American people want it. Demanding that the wealthy start paying their fair share of taxes. The American people want it. The real issue is that Congress is owned by big money and refuses to do what the American people want them to do.”

To much of that, one suspects, Trump would say, amen. Indeed, he makes Sanders’ point, only from a different perspective. He has money, and thus is independent of it. He knows the venality of the system from the inside, as the political donor who expects something for his money.

And this overlap of extremes helps explain why campaign 2016 is so exhilarating. The consultants and the pundits no longer have the answers. For once, a campaign is being run by the voters. Long taboo questions are front and foremost: the role of money, the need for wholesale reform of the political system, what people really think about immigrants, the merits of a single-payer health care system, and a host of others.

How will it all end? No one has a clue. Maybe the Republican party will heal its divisions, as it did after Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss in 1964, paving the way to the glory years of Reagan. Maybe Trump and Cruz will self-destruct, as the establishment prays, a “sensible” candidate will emerge, and today’s turmoil will be as ephemeral as a Washington snowstorm. But one suspects not.

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