The 2016 presidential election was expected by many to be a foregone conclusion: eventually, inevitably, the experts argued, the field would boil down to the two “name brand” candidates, the two presumed favorites, the two “establishment” candidates. Following this logic, it would stand to reason that Jeb Bush, brother of the 43rd president George W. Bush and son of 41st president George H. W. Bush, would represent the Republican Party; and Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and wife of 42nd president Bill Clinton, would assume the position of the Democratic Party’s nominee.
This, however, has not been borne out in the first months of the 2016 campaign. Although a great deal of time remains in before November 8th, 2016, it seems the political establishment is facing unprecedented challenges from candidates who cut their teeth on offering critiques of the status quo, and are continuing to campaign on essentially anti-establishment platforms.
Challengers on the Democrat Side
Even before a single candidate announced that they were running for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton was already the presumptive favorite to be voted into the Oval Office. She has been a Senator from New York, the Secretary of State, as well as the First Lady of the United States.
Though her experience in politics is largely unmatched, the buzz in the Democratic primaries has come instead from a left-wing firebrand, the Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Mr. Sanders has served in Congress for 25 years after spending the previous 8 years as mayor of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington. Outside of Vermont, however, he was scarcely known to the nation before announcing his presidential candidacy.
Sanders is an outspoken critic of corporatism and big money interests wielding too much influence. Although Clinton is a Democrat, her centrist, pro-business reputation puts her squarely in Sanders’ crosshair. Interestingly, even though he caucuses with the Democratic Party and is seeking the party’s nomination for president, Sanders is actually an Independent, and has never held office as a member of the Democrats.
Despite being vastly outspent by the Clinton campaign, Sanders has actually surged to a lead in the polls over Hillary in the key primary state of New Hampshire, the first battleground of the election. After trailing Clinton by more than 30 points during the spring, when the candidates first kicked off their campaigns, Sanders now leads the former First Lady in the most recent New Hampshire polls among Democrats by a 44% to 37% margin.
Challengers on the GOP Side
With his strong family ties to not one but two former presidents, Jeb Bush seemed like a shoe-in for the Republican Party nomination before the campaigns really hit full swing. Now, Bush is finding it difficult to distinguish himself amid a field of no less than 17 GOP candidates.
In the key primary state of Iowa, Jeb is actually ranked as low as 7th in various polls. He consistently trails billionaire Donald Trump, who has dominated the election headlines, as well as lagging behind Texas Senator Ted Cruz and political outsiders Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.
While Cruz is known for being a maverick within the Republic Party, and often flouts the party establishment in his favored positions and causes, the presence of never-held-office personalities like Fiorina, Carson, and Trump is itself an indictment against the notion that the presidential nominee must come from a position of well-established political clout.
Trump is clearly the poster child for dissatisfaction with the political establishment. His bellicose positions and unapologetic criticisms of the status quo have threatened many of the candidates running against him in the field, to the point that Republicans are chastising Mr. Trump for not ruling out running as a third-party candidate if he did not receive the Republican nomination—and move that many see as bolstering the Democrats’ chances in the general election.
Such a scenario brings back scenes of 1992 and Ross Perot, the billionaire who ran as an independent and largely cost George H.W. Bush reelection. The comparison is useful: Trump’s son, Eric, says he believes his father is running because he’s “fed up with the nonsense” and wants to fix the country, while the perennial third-party candidate, Ralph Nader, says it takes someone like Trump to break the “two-party tyranny” of the political establishment.
Is This the Year?
Even with their impressive performance at the early polls, few serious political analysts believe that either Trump, Sanders, or another anti-establishment character will win either party’s nomination. At minimum, however, both the Democratic and Republican primaries will pit an establishment figure (Bush or Clinton) against a candidate who stands for dramatic reforms to the status quo.
Perhaps this is finally the opportunity for a candidate to break through the well-guarded gates of the established political class.