The 2016 presidential election: 7 thoughts

Scott Becker and Emily Rappleye - Print  | 

About two weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, candidates are firing up their campaigns for what could be a very divisive election. As both the Democratic and Republican Parties grapple with their identities, whichever takes the White House is likely to take control of Congress.

Here are seven thoughts on the current political environment and the presidential race so far.

1. Widespread concern and malaise with government have made way for non-establishment candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and businessman Donald Trump. The public is showing dissatisfaction with politics as usual, which is fueling some of the unexpected developments we've seen so far. January Gallup polls show 76 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. 

On the Democratic side, Sen. Sanders is a very independent thinker and is running a much more competitive race than one might have guessed. Recent polls from CBS and The New York Times show he is closing in on Hillary Clinton, who continues to lead as the top candidate for the Democratic nomination. 

On the Republican side, Donald Trump has taken the spotlight. He has proposed banning all Muslims from entering the U.S., he called Mexican immigrants rapists and has targeted women like Carly Fiorina and Megyn Kelly with gender-specific insults. This leaves many wondering how Mr. Trump can lead the polls for the nomination. Some blame media attention. Acknowledging this factor, The Huffington Post announced in July it would confine all coverage of Mr. Trump to its entertainment section, though it reversed this decision in December following his comments on Muslims, saying the campaign had morphed from a "sideshow" to "an ugly and dangerous force in American politics." His popularity is likely also influenced by the general dissatisfaction with politics and the Republican Party's internal feud to pin down its direction.

2. The emergence of Sen. Sanders and the pressure on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to reflect a movement and strengthening of what was traditionally the left wing side of the Democratic Party. Considering the lukewarm economy and shaky international security situation, in a typical election the public would likely favor the non-incumbent party. For Democrats, it may mean the party looks to a less traditional candidate in Sen. Sanders.

Despite that Sen. Sanders is said to be closing in on Ms. Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, her long political and leadership career may make her seem a safer candidate in a perilous time. She still holds a 25-point national advantage over Sen. Sanders, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Jan. 17.

3.  The Republican Party seems unanchored. Neither the middle of the party nor the far right of the party yet seems to be winning in the primaries. As The Atlantic articulates, some of the most pessimistic Americans following the Great Recession are middle class and middle aged, and their pessimism is reflected in the mistrust of institutions, including that of the Republican Party. This makes way for a candidate like Mr. Trump, who is somewhat of a populist, to capture Republican attention. His unorthodox views, though scattered, seem to ring true with many Republicans in a way the views of the more traditional candidates do not.

On the heels of Mr. Trump is Sen. Cruz who represents the traditional hardcore right side of the Republican base. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush may be considered more centrist, but they are having a hard time articulating what they stand for. In certain ways, their campaigns echo Mitt Romney's in that they provide little clarity for voters to stand behind.

4. The larger-than-usual Republican side will narrow shortly to three to five candidates in the running. Early on, Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, indicated polling thresholds would be put in place for candidates to participate in debates and help narrow the field, according to The Washington Times Former New York Gov. George Pataki and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently dropped, and we expect several more to drop in early February. On the other side of the Iowa Caucus, we will likely say goodbye to retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, MD, — whose entire New Hampshire super PAC quit last week to join Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign — as well as several others, including Sen. Rand Paul, MD, (R-Ky.), who was bumped down to the second tier in the most recent Republican debate.   

5. This year's unusual lineup of non-establishment candidates is also fueled by the ability of those candidates to raise significant funds, something that is normally difficult for political outsiders. As of the third quarter of 2015, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton still led the money race, with $133.3 million and $97.7 million raised. (Notably, Ms. Clinton has received donations from the greatest number of CEOs, and Mr. Bush has received the most of his funding from CEOs.) Ted Cruz followed with $64.9 million, Marco Rubio with $47.7 million and Ben Carson with $31.6 million, according to The New York TimesComparatively, Donald Trump, who has claimed he is self-funding his campaign, has raised about $5.8 million, including a $1.8 million personal loan. 

6. The major issues will likely be national security, the economy and healthcare. If President Obama's State of the Union Address and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's Republican response offer any direction, it's that the economy, healthcare, foreign policy and immigration will all be top issues in this campaign season. Gallup polls from December also show Americans rate more specifically terrorism, gun control, and unemployment as top issues. 

7. The approval ratings of the incumbent president have predicted the winner of the election, according to a Politico analysis. In eight elections since 1980, if the incumbent president's approval rating was below 40 percent, their party lost the election. If it was near or above 50 percent, the incumbent party won. Gallup Daily polls show President Barack Obama's current approval rating hovers around 44 percent, with a 3 percent margin of error. So, it remains unclear how things will shake out, but it will certainly be an untraditional race. 

 

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