Inside Story

Is it too early to talk about 2016?

The next US presidential election is two-and-a-half years away, but some key decisions are likely much sooner, writes Lesley Russell

Lesley Russell 31 March 2014 1208 words

On a fast-moving train: Hillary Clinton speaking at the official celebration of International Women’s Day 2014 in March. Ryan Brown/UN Women

OF COURSE it’s ridiculously early to talk about the presidential election in 2016 – we’re still more than six months away from the midterm elections – but that hasn’t inhibited early jockeying among a growing posse of putative candidates, major fundraising campaigns, and lots of commentary from the pundits.

The 2016 election will be only the fourth in forty years in which the incumbent president is not running. Perhaps that explains why the current major focus is on yet another clash between two dynastic candidates, with Hillary Rodham Clinton, the wife of a former president, and John Ellis (Jeb) Bush, the son and brother of former presidents, seen as frontrunners.

The assumption is that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. She would come to the task with substantial achievements as first lady, senator and secretary of state. She’s recognised and popular, especially with women, and incredibly well-qualified. She and her husband have been working the party machinery non-stop and major party donors are funding an array of super PACs – political action committees – built to prod her to run.

The big driver for Clinton must be that she is a policy wonk motivated by the desire to make a difference, and there is no better place to do that than the presidency. Her election would help cement the key issue on her agenda and President Obama’s key legacy, healthcare reform.

Republicans always used to run the next-in-line candidate, and Jeb Bush is the closest they have. But his appeal to the party elite doesn’t extend to those in the Tea Party wing who repudiate his centrist views. In public, he seems very tentative about running, and he chose not to run in 2012. But over the past few weeks he has been very visible at a national level, delivering policy speeches, campaigning for Republicans ahead of the midterm elections, and cultivating ties with wealthy benefactors – all signals that he is considering a run.

If he doesn’t run, the polls show the Republican race is wide open, with a plethora of candidates demanding attention and support. These include state governors Chris Christie (New Jersey) and Scott Walker (Wisconsin), senators Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, representative Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential choice in 2012, and previous candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. None of these is likely to appeal broadly to the nation’s diversifying electorate, especially Hispanic voters.

It’s obvious that the race to the nomination is emerging as a fight between the establishment and insurgent wings of the GOP. The Tea Party’s aim will be to push the eventual nominee to the right, even though that is likely to further alienate them from the unaligned voters they will need to win.

HILLARY Clinton has a very clear advantage over her rivals: all her negatives are already out there. The polls to date indicate that the 2016 race is hers to lose. Her popularity rating is currently well above President Obama’s, and a recent compilation of polls by Real Clear Politics shows her winning 67 per cent of the vote in Democratic primaries, with no other candidate above 11 per cent. General election polling shows her leading various possible Republican nominees by at least 9 per cent.

But the election is so far off that those polls are essentially meaningless. And, like Jeb Bush, there is no certainty that Clinton will run. In 2016 she will be sixty-nine, the same age as Ronald Reagan when he was first elected in 1980, and she has had several health scares. Those close to Clinton say that she has not yet decided whether to run – that she is torn and the decision can (and should) wait. But the momentum is such that unless she definitively declines the chance soon, she may not be able to get off the moving train.

Still, the sense that America is overdue to elect a woman is powerful and extends even beyond its borders. “I’m optimistic I’ll live to see a female president of the United States,” Julia Gillard said earlier this year.

In a Clintonless field there is no obvious Democrat frontrunner, and some pundits have predicted Democrat chaos should that be the case. It would definitely improve the chances of a Republican win. Vice-president Joe Biden is the putative favourite for the nomination in Clinton’s absence. He is popular among Democrats, but his two previous presidential runs crashed and in November 2016 he will be seventy-four, older than Ronald Reagan was when he was re-elected in 1984.

Other possible candidates include current and former state governors Andrew Cuomo (New York), Martin O’Malley (Maryland), Mark Warner (Virginia), John Hickenlooper (Colorado) and even Jerry Brown (California). There is also a raft of impressive and ambitious female senators whose names are mentioned and who might jump in if Clinton is out, including Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York) and Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota).

The biggest threat for Democrats in 2016 will likely come more from the big money supporting the Republicans than from any substantive candidate the GOP will run. Recent reports are that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who ploughed more than $92 million into efforts to help Republican candidates in 2012, is undertaking a new strategy for 2016. Recognising that his early support for Newt Gingrich undermined Mitt Romney’s chances in the general campaign, he is apparently looking to support a more mainstream Republican with a clear shot at winning the White House.

Last week several prospective Republican presidential candidates, including Jeb Bush, gathered in Las Vegas for the opening round of what has been dubbed “the Sheldon Primary.” Such events serve to highlight how warped the system for financing presidential elections has become. Super PACs like those run by Adelson and others with personal agendas and big money increasingly drive the election process, locking out potential candidates, political parties and voters.

FOR THE moment these are issues only for the political insiders and candidates. They need to worry about fundraising and the lasting impact of personal foibles and political missteps and how these issues will play out in two years’ time. But the voters are not paying attention.

President Obama is, however. He is worried that the intense focus of Democrat activists on 2016 will mean an adverse outcome in the November 2014 midterm elections. “Nobody is going to be more invested than me in having a Democrat succeed me, to consolidate and solidify the gains that we’ve made during my presidency,” he told a group of donors in early March. “But right now, we’ve got to make sure we’re fighting in this election.”

He went on: “I hope that just because I’m not on the ballot that people aren’t going to take it easy this time, because the ideas I care about and am fighting for are on the ballot.” He’s right: the outcome of the 2014 elections will determine his legacy and that legacy will shape the Democrats’ chances to hold on to the White House in 2016. •