The US presidential race is not to the swift, it is to the eccentric. Potty-mouthed billionaire Donald Trump and Sixties socialist Bernie Sanders have emerged as strong contenders to be the world’s most powerful person.
On Monday, the US presidential campaign will officially begin with the Iowa caucus. The Republican and Democratic parties will winnow their candidate list through July and the country will vote for a president four months later. Trump, who has railed against Mexicans, Muslims and women, has a double-digit lead in the Republican listings. Sanders is just a few points behind the once unassailable Hillary Clinton in Iowa and well ahead of her in New Hampshire, the second state-level Democratic contest.
Stories last year that foresaw Clinton taking on Jeb Bush and spoke of two seasoned representatives from America’s main political dynasties are compost. The door to the Oval Office is wide open.
Why is Trump towering? Pollsters say he has combined two voter segments. One is a rightwing rabble that constitutes about a third of Republican support — the party’s less educated, less affluent supporters. This group blends with a larger Republican anger at its establishment: 60% of Republicans say they want a candidate with zero government experience. The other segment is a large chunk of white, working-class Democrats. The latter serve as his afterburner in the polls. Analysts noted that in the last two presidential elections, several million Democratic white workers had stayed at home. One view was they didn’t want to vote for a black president. It was more than that. This group, sometimes dubbed the “Jacksonian Democrats,” had become alienated by a Democratic Party whose coalition was a combo of wealthy, cosmopolitan whites and non-white minorities.
This group had become a floating vote, turned off equally by the ultraliberal Democratic elite and the corporate Republican establishment. They had backed the independent Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential race. Like many blue collar Americans their wallets had thinned over the past decade.
“Both Trump and Sanders appeal to disgruntled Americans who have seen their median incomes decline in real terms over their adult lives, who have seen rising inequality and slowing income mobility,” says Bruce Stokes, director of the Pew Global Economic Attitudes surveys. The dirty word for this US election, say commentators, is “establishment.”
Republicans have an additional grouse. “Republican primary voters are angry about the fact that America no longer looks like the undisputed global number one — and that President Obama does not seem to care,” says analyst Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s hard-slanging of most things foreign, including Brussels, goes down well.
Polls and primaries are notoriously disconnected from each other in US elections. However, Trump’s lead in Iowa and New Hampshire is too large to evaporate. In turn, these victories would give him momentum to put up a good fight in the 30 or so state primaries of the next two months.
Sanders is more likely to be a statistical casualty. Though expected to start well, the expectation is that he will fade as most of the next batch of primaries are in the American South where Clinton’s strong black American backing should prevail. Sanders, in any case, is overly dependent on youth support — a demographic notorious for poor turnout. Two black swan events to watch for: Clinton indicted this spring for laxness over classified emails or media mogul Michael Bloomberg joining as an independent candidate. Even Trump is not a sure thing for the Republican ticket. One, in the next fortnight several Republican candidates will drop out. If their vote shares coalesce around a single candidate, Trump could be rumbled. Donald has weak support among registered Republicans, the most likely to cast primary ballots.
Two, as the race becomes more policy and less play-acting, Trump may wilt. Pollster Nate Silver, the prophet of Obama’s victories, has shown a correlation between Trump’s numbers and his headline domination. At present, he receives more than twice the media coverage than all his other Republican rivals put together.
Three, some argue the party leadership will manoeuvre Trump off the podium. “The Republican establishment is finally rallying against Trump,” says John Schlosser, senior advisor of the lobby firm Albright Stonebridge. “I expect them to coalesce around a single figure — probably Marco Rubio. The smart money is still on him.” Yet there are signs the Republican brass are coming to terms with the idea of candidate Trump. The assumption is that his business instincts will prevail. “Trump is the ultimate deal-maker and would be much more transactional than his bluster suggests,” says Stoke. It helps that in Trump vs Clinton playoffs, the polls show them as neck-and-neck.
One thing Trump and Sanders share is a general disinterest, if not dislike, for the world outside. Trump’s foreign policy consists of brash one-liners: Mexicans are bad, Chinese worse and Muslims the worst. Brussels is a “hellhole” and climate change a “hoax.” On the other hand, he seems to like India and Vladimir Putin.
That is almost a global charter compared to Sanders, who only wants the US to stay out of foreign wars. “Sanders seems to have no grand strategic vision, no plan for dealing with Putin and Russia, or Pakistan,” says Stokes. The two also break from their party mainstreams in being anti-trade. Sanders sees trade agreements as the devil’s handiwork. Trump wants a 45% tariff on Chinese imports. “Our trade policy would become more protectionist and nationalist,” says Twining.
There is still a sense in Washington that Trump doesn’t really believe what he says and merely plays to the gallery. He has surprised in other ways, refraining from joining other Republican candidates in saying he would rip up the US-Iran nuclear deal.
What should reassure foreign capitals, however, is that neither Trump nor Sanders seem to have a foreign policy team. A new administration would have to fill thousands of empty positions. “Trump, like Sanders, would have to rely on experts from the party foreign affairs establishment because he, like Sanders, has nowhere else to go,” says Schlosser. The 45th presidential administration, in other words, will be familiar faces no matter what — the only stranger may be the man at the top.