Still a long road ahead in US presidential race

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 12, 2015


The irruption of Donald Trump as a contender for the Republican presidential candidate nomination has attracted a lot of media attention around the world, but US citizens have yet not began to pay real attention to the long list of Republican presidential hopefuls that aspire to challenge the likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the early front-runner to succeed Barack Obama when his term expires in January of 2017. Because the election is 15 months away and the primaries will begin on February 1st, 2016, US nationals who vote for the Republican Party know that the list of 17 Republican presidential hopefuls will shrink significantly before they need to start paying attention to their strengths, weaknesses and electability.


The US presidential election calendar is much longer than in most other presidential democracies. US presidential aspirants start planning very early for the massive effort entailed in running a presidential campaign. As presidential candidates need to raise huge amounts of money, increase their name recognition and build a campaign structure throughout the country, time is a precious asset.


Normally, presidential elections are defined by the presence or absence of an incumbent President. When a sitting president seeks re-election (as in 2004 or 2012), opposition candidates are less inclined to enter the race. Since three of the past four presidents have won re-election, the low probability of unseating an incumbent dissuades many presidential hopefuls. However, when the sitting president is retiring, there is always a long list of presidential hopefuls within the party that controls the White House and in the opposition.


Winning chances

In 2008, when unpopular US President George W. Bush was finishing his second term, there was an intense race to get the nomination in the Democratic and Republican parties. Since Republicans did not know ahead of time whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would be the nominee, Republican voters interested in choosing the candidates that would stand the best chance to defeat the Democrats could not easily choose among the list of conservative presidential contenders. Similarly, because it was not clear who the Republican nominee would be, Democratic voters could not properly weigh if Obama or Clinton had better chances to win the election.


The 2016 presidential cycle has turned out to be different than previous races. Though Democratic US President Barack Obama is barred from seeking a new term, there is little doubt about who will win the Democratic Party nomination. Former First Lady, former Senator from New York and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming favourite. Though she will face several challenges in her party, Clinton has amassed such a huge campaign war chest that no democratic challenger stands a chance to give her a run for her money.


That leaves all the uncertainty to the Republican Party. So far, 17 persons have declared their intention to seek their party nomination. With such a crowded field of candidates, having name recognition becomes a necessary condition for survival. Such a large number of contenders makes it impossible for presidential debates to include all candidates. The most recent televised debate only included the top 10 candidates in recent polls. Yet, even when the number of participants is restricted to 10, it is very difficult to stand out among a group of candidates with similar policy positions.


That is what Republican presidential hopeful and controversial real estate developer and television personality Donald Trump understood very well. Knowing that he needed to stand out in a crowded field, Trump opted to make noise with obnoxious statements and controversial declarations that have polarized public opinion. As a result, Trump has succeeded in standing out and attracting media attention. Some polls even show that he leads the pack of Republican hopefuls in vote intention.


Short-term strategy

But Trumpís strategy is short-term. By alienating key voting blocs ó such as Latinos and, more recently women ó Trump has minimized his chances of finishing ahead of his rivals when, late this year, mainstream US nationals start paying attention to the Republican primaries. As a runner in a marathon who knows that he will not last the 42 kilometres, Trump is running faster than his rivals to capture media attention early, knowing that he will run out of fuel earlier than anyone else.


The media attention that Trump has earned for his controversial presidential run has reached beyond the US. Yet, even the attention that moderate voters are paying to the race does not warrant concerns that the media seems to be developing about the possibility of Trump winning the Republican nomination. Trumpís anti-immigrant message might resonate with Republican likely voters, but Republicans will want to nominate a candidate who can be competitive against Hillary Clinton come November 2016. With his ability to alienate voters, pick fights with the media and turn the attention to his controversial statements rather than his policy ideas, Trump has succeeded in standing out among the crowded field of 17 candidates, but he has blown up any small chance he had to clinch the Republican nomination in the first quarter of 2016.