White House fever: Contenders galore for 2016

With Democrats and Republicans in turmoil, and President Obama in lame duck mode, media and political junkies have zeroed in on the (potentially crowded) race for president.
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Sally Jewell accepting Interior Secretary nomination

With Democrats and Republicans in turmoil, and President Obama in lame duck mode, media and political junkies have zeroed in on the (potentially crowded) race for president.

The new Congress is not yet seated.  Both major political parties are having a tough time holding together, with pressure coming from their ideological flanks. President Obama's last two lame duck years appear unlikely to yield much important legislation.  Media and political junkies thus have gone to their default positions: an obsession with 2016 presidential politics.
Only in recent years have presidential races started so early. Sen. George McGovern broke ground in the spring of 1971, by declaring his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination more than 18 months ahead of the 1972 general election. Until then candidates generally had waited until January of the election year before taking a formal plunge. Among other things, they feared the cost of long campaigns and also the possibility that, if they started too early, voters would tire of them before party caucuses and primaries began.
No such constraints remain.

Formal candidacies have yet to be declared, but on the Democratic side these names all have surfaced. Beyond the obvious — Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden — we have Andrew Cuomo, James Webb and Martin O'Malley. On the GOP side there is a huge lineup. Jeb Bush this past Tuesday signaled he was running. The 2012 presidential and vice-presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, remain as centrist standbys should Bush falter. Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich, Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty, John Kasich, Jon Huntsman, Scott Walker, Kelly Ayotte, Rick Perry, Ben Carson and Sarah Palin are all in varying degrees of "exploration" — which means they'd declare in a split second if they thought the money and support were out there for them.

Chances are you've not even heard of some of these people; Maryland Gov. O'Malley, for instance, or former Virginia Sen. Webb or physician and TV personality Ben Carson. But party activists know them. Many of these potential candidates will self-select themselves out a year from now when campaigning in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary will have begun. But, as the final fields emerge, here are some thoughts to ponder.

Passionate supporters

The nominating process, especially on the Democratic side, tilts toward those candidates with the kind of intense support that can make a winning difference in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire where organizing and turnout matter.

The aforementioned McGovern, entering 1972, was favored in national polls by 2-4 percent of Democrats. His rival for the nomination, Maine Sen. Ed Muskie, the 1968 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, was considered the almost certain presidential nominee. But McGovern had what Muskie did not: an intense and committed group of core supporters who wanted to stop the Vietnam War. Muskie was acceptable to most Democrats, but he lacked intense backing of any constituency and was out of the race before the primary season was over.

Former Gov. Jimmy Carter is another example. He came into the 1976 race with a loyal base of supporters who bought into his "not a politician" posture in the wake of the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon's resignation. Carter also had the good fortune to be the only non-liberal candidate among a Democratic nominating field populated otherwise by liberals. He won both his party's nomination and the White House by remaining purposely vague about almost all foreign and domestic issues.

Republicans, over time, have proved less likely to nominate long shots or outsiders. Their presidential nominees tend to be elected officials who have waited their turn. Nonetheless, in 2016 issue activists and true believers in the GOP will bring support to possible candidates such as Santorum, Perry, Cruz, Huckabee and Paul at the expense of moderate but unexciting mainstreamers.

When there is dissatisfaction with an outgoing President, the successor usually is someone who appears to voters to be his or her opposite. Candidates Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, in particular, convinced voters that, whatever they had disliked about the outgoing administration would be reversed during their tenure. In many cases their alternative policy prescriptions were vague. But their style and demeanor signaled change.

The role of money

Money matters but is not always decisive in political races.

The outgoing Congress made it even easier for institutions and individuals to pour big money into political campaigns.There is an old Golden Rule in politics: Those with the gold rule. But not always.

Changing tides of opinion almost always outweigh the influence of money in a campaign. Experienced campaigners know that you don't necessarily have to outspend your opponent. You don't need the most money; you only need enough. Enough to finance competitive paid-media campaigns, organizational activity, staffing and travel.

The element of surprise

There will be surprises in 2016. There will be a desire for change that goes beyond public policy and issues. For example, there will be a general longing for candidates not named either Bush or Clinton. And there are some sleepers in the field who just might catch fire because they stand out from their peers. 

A Democratic sleeper is former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a former Marine, one time Navy Secretary and author of history and fiction. Webb is a tough-minded iconoclast, unafraid to speak his mind. In a general election, he would be hard for Republicans to handle.

Among Republicans Dr. Ben Carson, an African-American physician, could cause Democrats trouble in a general election. He is plain-spoken and well informed, an effective television spokesperson who projects calm qualities of leadership. A Webb-Carson contest would surely attract public attention and get voters to the polls.

The odds against this match up, by the way, are high. But I cite these two because both are seen now as outsiders who have little chance against better established, better known names. But either or both could end up in the finals. Remember 2004 when Vermont Gov. Howard Dean came out of nowhere and almost captured the Democratic nomination before self-destructing onstage before a national television audience?

I expect collapses by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Vice President Joe Biden. The blustering Christie is just too Jersey for the rest of the country. Biden is too closely tied to the departing order and his potential voter support too greatly overlaps with Hillary Clinton's.

I'm predicting some 2016 surprises because voters are fatigued by the present political cacophony and those they associate with it. They will be looking for someone and something different and, if possible, new.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.