Catching And Killing Their Own: The 2016 US Primaries

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The Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, has withdrawn from the Republican Primary. But he left a parting shot, suggesting other Republicans should drop out too. This would allow credible candidates the space to take on Donald Trump, he said.

The American election process is long. The Presidential ballot is in November 2016, but the process effectively begins in 2015 as contenders from each party begin campaigning for primary elections, to be held in early 2016.

The Republican field started at 17, it’s now down to 14. Last Wednesday the CNN debate was broken into two: the top 11 polling in the main game; the bottom four in a curtain raiser.

The format of that debate: 11 candidates; a rule that a candidate could reply if another candidate personally attacked their record; and Donald Trump on stage, ensured the event did not descend into a policy discussion.

Candidates traded barbs and made hysterical attacks on Planned Parenthood.

It was spectacular sport. It rated brilliantly. I watched it in a New York sports bar filled with Northeastern liberals. Good news for CNN, bad news for Republicans.

A crowded field favours the fringe. It makes it harder for an electable candidate to be heard.

This is the largest field in a Republican primary since 1916, and the largest in any since the Democratic primary in 1976. Why? Below are my hastily thrown together theories.

First, it’s a winnable election. After 8 years of Democratic rule the Republicans think they have a shot in 2016. Anyone with an ego and a ghost’s chance is in the game.

Second, a weak front-runner. Republican primaries are rarely this entertaining. Usually, the establishment anoints its candidate, dips him in money, and foists him on the base. The primaries serve as a victory lap for the front-runner. Think George W Bush in 2000, Mitt Romney in 2012.

This time Jeb Bush, who has raised over $100 million, is that guy. The problem is Jeb the candidate sucks.

Jeb was meant to be the smart, thoughtful Bush, the “policy” wonk. Jeb has everything, except his brother Dubya’s self-deprecating charm. Unfortunately, charm is kind of everything in a popularity contest.

Instead of charm Jeb is blessed with cringe-inducing earnestness. When he answers questions about immigration, he is known to remind audiences, “I wrote a book about that”. Thanks Jeb, but with 17 candidates, nobody has time to read your book. Put it in a sound bite.

Worse, Jeb’s latest strategy is to personalise his feud with Donald Trump. It peaked in the CNN debate. Jeb awkwardly asked Trump to apologise to his wife. He repeatedly sparred and interrupted Trump over the course of the evening, leading Trump to congratulate Bush on showing “more energy”, to raucus applause from the crowd. Jeb Bush would do well to adopt Mark Twain’s advice: “Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference”.

Brother of former US president and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.
Brother of former US president and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.

Finally, Jeb is a Bush. It’s a winning name for fundraisers, but when Republican voters hear “Bush” it reminds them of two Presidencies that ended in recession, two failed wars, and two attempts at liberal immigration reform.

Jeb’s failure to capitalise on his advantage has given lesser lights permission to dream.

Third, the Republican Party, like the Democrats in the 1970s, is deeply divided.

It is not merely divided between moderate Republicans and right-wing Republicans. There are differences over several issues, which do not divide over neat moderate/conservative lines.

Hawks like Lindsey Graham are running campaigns promising to send 20,000 troops to Iraq. Rand Paul, a libertarian, is committed to a policy of non-intervention.

Seeking to court the evangelical vote, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee all support the right of town clerks to refuse to marry people. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon, has gone as far to say a Muslim could not be President because Islam is inconsistent with the US Constitution.

There is no middle ground on immigration. The US currently has 11 million undocumented immigrants, many Hispanic.

The Republican establishment figured out way back in 2000 that they could not win an election without Hispanic votes, and they probably could not feasibly deport every undocumented immigrant. Mitt Romney’s crushing defeat in 2012 reinforced the need for Republicans to win the Hispanic vote.

A portion of the Republican base did not get the memo, though. Donald Trump is their champion, a candidate who will build a wall, and deport all 11 million undocumented migrants. This would cost, like 600 billion dollars. Okay, that’s a made up figure. I looked up the estimated cost once but it’s so ridiculously expensive I decided it was pointless committing the number to memory. Besides, as Trump says, Mexico will pay.

These divisions create a lot of turf for fringe candidates to play in. There are plenty of silos for candidates to seek supporters, volunteers, and funds. Trump has grabbed the anti-immigrant vote. Carson, Cruz, and Huckabee are wrestling for evangelicals. Rubio and Cleveland Governor Kasich are hoping to take the establishment mantle from Bush. Rand Paul is pitching to the libertarians.

Lastly, in the era of mass media, winning is not everything. The primaries have taken on a similar quality to reality TV. You can lose the competition, but still win with post-election opportunities.

An impressive showing can lead to book deals, Fox News gigs, and invitations to the lucrative right wing speaking circuit. The campaign is sort of a job placement service for washed up right-wingers.

Sarah Palin turned her 2008 campaign into a TV career. Mike Huckabee’s brief success in the 2008 Republican primaries scored him a talk show on Fox News. Ben Carson (not a lawyer or historian) already has a deal to write a book with his wife (also not a lawyer or historian) about the United States constitution (a topic involving the intersection of history and law). People wanting to learn about the constitution are expected to buy said book.

Those are my theories. A divided party without a front-runner has a crowded field of hopeful presidential candidates/Dancing with the Stars contestants.

Walker is right. This suits Donald Trump. Trump has the anti-immigrant vote locked in. The format of the debates won’t expose his policy vacuum, the media market is too crowded for any single challenger to emerge, and Jeb Bush too boring to stop him.

Trump 2016.

Mathew Kenneally

Mathew Kenneally is a stand up comedian who moonlights as a lawyer. He's a regular new Matilda columnist and is the co-author with Toby Halligan of the satirical blog Diary Leaks. He is also the co-founder of the topical comedy room Political Asylum.

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