Case Study: The 2016 nominations Democrat and Republican

The Democratic race

The election of 2016 was an entirely open election in that neither the incumbent president nor vice president was running, just like the election of 2008. In 2016, President Obama was term-limited by the Twenty-second Amendment, and on 22 October 2015, Vice President Biden announced that he would not, after all, be a candidate.

Open races tend to attract a large field as there is usually no obvious front-runner. So it was in that sense surprising that the Democratic field was never larger than five candidates, and by the last two months of 2015 amounted to just three candidates — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and a very distant third in Martin O'Malley, who never got to even 5% in the national polls. Two others — Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb — pulled out over three months before voting began . So why was the Democratic field so small?

One reason was—Hillary Clinton. Clinton, the former first lady (1993-2001), United States senator (2001-09) and secretary of state (2009-13), had such a huge advantage in terms of name recognition, experience, organisation and money-raising potential that other candidates were frightened away. When Clinton announced her candidacy on 12 April 2015, she was already pretty much the presumptive nominee, and once Joe Biden had publicly announce that he would not run ,Clinton's position was presumed to be even more unassailable. In this sense, the Democrats seemed to be choosing their presidential nominee in the same way the Republicans usually do — by picking the person whose turn it seemed to be.

Clinton led the national opinion polls throughout 2015. The trouble is that at this early stage, opinion polls can be as much about name recognition as popularity. Of the five declared candidates, .Clinton was the only one with national name recognition after over two decades in national politics. She entered 2015 at 61%, fell to just 40% by the end of September, but picked up to 51.6% by the year's endBut the polls also showed some weaknesses for Clinton. The Gallup poll between mid-September and mid-October found that while Clinton had a net favourability rating of 57% among Democrat women, it was only 43% among Democrat men. Furthermore, the polls in November found that while she enjoyed 66% approval among Democrats aged 65+, this figure fell to just 39% among 18-29-year-olds. Male and younger Democrats preferred Sanders over Clinton. Furthermore, Clinton was not performing all that strongly in the head-to-head polls against potential Republican opponents. Although she was consistently besting Republican front-runner Donald Trump, she was lagging against both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

Why was Bernie Sanders so effective ? Unlike the Republicans, Democrats genuinely prefer a contest. So, as in 2008, Clinton's 'inevitability' worked against her.

Clinton's campaign lacked a focused message. People knew who Hillary was, but what did she stand for?

There was Clinton's wooden campaigning style, which had changed little from her appearances on her husband's campaigns two or three decades ago. But today's audiences want more than the mere parroting of pre-scripted sound bites. In her television debates with Sanders and O'Malley, it was Sanders who looked the more energised. There was the Clinton legacy of -- scandal. People associated the name Clinton with sleaze- money or sex — and this time the scandal about her State Department e-mails sounded very Clintonesque and the painfully weak excuse lines only reminded people of past scandals.

So within the Democratic Party in 2015, was there really was an `invisible primary'? In that some of the important political activity during this period was still invisible: fundraising; the gathering of political and media endorsements; the assembling of campaign staffs; the planning for election year itself. But on the other hand, the ubiquitous intra-party television debates and the endless media commentary and coverage make it difficult to describe anything else during this period of the campaign as invisible. It was all too visible. That said, the Democrats did cut the number of intra-party television debates from 26 in 2007-08 to just six in 2015-16, four of which were to be held before voting began. Sanders and O'Malley were critical of this very significant reduction, claiming it was a ploy by the Democratic National Committee to protect Hillary Clinton's front-runner position. Thus, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Clinton was still very definitely the front-runner — no change there — but looked a little more vulnerable than we had expected.

The Republican race

What the Democrats lacked in terms of numbers, the Republicans seemed determined to make up for. By the end of July 2015 they had 17 declared candidates — the largest field ever seen. There were six former governors, four senators, three governors, one former senator, a business CEO (Fiorina), a retired neurosurgeon (Carson) and a star of reality television (Trump) (see Table 1.3). It would be a pre-election year that defied most of the usual rules about who would emerge as the party's front-runner.

Table 1.3 Republican Party presidential candidates, 2016

Two days in June encapsulated this bizarre year. On Monday 15 June, a big crowd had assembled at Miami Dade College. It was a culturally diverse crowd and it had come together to witness the declaration by the former Florida governor Jeb Bush that he would be a candidate for the presidency in 2016. Bush had the same advantages that Clinton had — name recognition, experience, organisation and money-raising potential — but it was already clear that these were not going to frighten off other potential candidates. Ten other Republicans had already thrown their hats into the ring. But as the son and brother of former presidents and two-term Florida governor, Bush was the quintessential establishment candidate. He was also the presumptive front-runner— the man to beat. He had the aura of electability. He had gravitas, and his speeches were finely tuned and received rave reviews from the assembled media.

Just 24 hours later another boisterous crowd had gathered — this one in the marble-clad lobby of an iconic skyscraper on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan in New York City. This was Trump Tower, and down the escalator came the man who built and owns the place — businessman, real-estate developer, property magnate and reality television star Donald Trump. Trump was the ultimate insurgent candidate. He had lots of name recognition and self-made money, but no political experience. His speech appeared almost off the cuff; his language harsh, negative, inflammatory. He went after President Obama, China and illegal immigrants. He claimed that those who were illegally crossing the border into the country from Mexico were drug dealers, rapists and murderers. The crowd loved it, but the speech drew instant criticism from the media and the party establishment. Surely Trump could not be anything more than a footnote in the 2016 Republican presidential race.

But in less than one month, Trump overtook Bush in the polls, and by September Trump was flying high with 30% in a 17-horse race, with Bush back in a distant third place on just 7%. Trump would maintain that front-runner position for the remainder of 2015, ending the year with a 17 percentage-point lead over his nearest rival, and a 31-point lead over Bush, who by this time was back in sixth place with the also-rans. The Republican Party, the deferential party, the party that — as we have already seen — usually nominates its presidential candidates by answering the question `Whose turn is it?', had become the party of insurgency and grassroots rebellion. The Republican Party had been the subject of a hostile takeover by Mr Trump.

Trump spent the second half of 2015 rewriting the Republican's invisible primary rulebook. The 'rules' said that you couldn't be the front-runner for all those months leading up to Iowa and New Hampshire without having any political or elective experience at all. But Trump had no such experience and yet led from July through December. Conventional wisdom said that you couldn't throw millions of your own money at your nomination bid and not be accused of trying to 'buy' the election, thereby turning off the vast majority of potential supporters. Trump was vulgar and rude about his opponents — and yet his poll numbers kept rising. He was an old-fashioned television-centred candidate in a digital age — and yet he remained the front-runner. He was loathed and despised by the Republican Party establishment — and yet he seemed to be running away with their presidential nomination. And on the other side of the coin, in this most bizarre of years, was the sight of Jeb Bush — the quintessential Republican establishment candidate with zillions of dollars raised, name recognition on steroids, and relevant political experience — languishing in single figures in the polls. It just didn't seem to make any sense at all.

Then there were the Republican televised debates. There were so many candidates that the sponsoring media outlets couldn't even fit them all on the same platform. To get around the problem, they started to run two debates. On each designated date there was a secondary, afternoon debate (referred to in uncomplimentary fashion as the 'kids' table') for those in the lower half of the national polls, followed by a main, evening primetime debate for the leading candidates. There were seven such debates in the six months from August 2015 to the start of the primary season on 1 February 2016. In the end, just six candidates — Bush, Carson, Cruz little if any serious policy debate occurring. As a slightly dejected Ben Carson commented after the debate just four days before voting started:

This format is not the best format for convincing anybody of anything. We're dealing with sound bites as opposed to being able to explain something in depth. But unfortunately that's characteristic of the society we live in today.

So by the close of the so-called invisible primary, Trump had a 16-point lead over his nearest rival — Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another anti-establishment candidate. Add in another anti-establishment candidate in retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and these three commanded 63% of the vote in what was still a 12-horse race. Or to put it another way, the remaining nine establishment candidates had to divide the remaining 37% between them. That didn't leave much to go round and left the Republican Party establishment with a huge problem on the eve of the Iowa caucuses.