2016 Role Reversal

April 08, 2013

Who are going to be the presidential nominees in 2016?  If you’re not a deeply obsessed political junkie, you probably wonder why this question is being asked at all in 2013, at the start of President Obama’s second term.  But it is being asked, and the pre-race is being covered pretty regularly by sites like The Washington Post’s The Fix, NBC’s First Read, and ABC’s The Note

It’s happening for about the same reason they broadcast the NFL Combine on NFL Network.  The year-round, 24/7 political outlets need content.  And in the era of niche audiences, there are enough people curious about the sport of politics to consume the speculation.  (And at this point it is just people who are interested in the “game” of it; anyone interested in policy or ideology is focused on issues being debated by the Congress we elected last November.)

Okay, so back to the original question: Who’s ahead for 2016? The conventional wisdom is that nothing which happens now makes any difference. That’s largely true – but in a way that is upside down from recent political history.

Traditionally, it didn’t matter which Democrat was in the lead three years ahead of time, because the messy and disorganized nature of Democratic politics meant things would change a dozen times before the Iowa caucuses. Some nobody like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama would grab the nomination in a way no one expected. For Republicans, it wouldn’t matter because the front-runner – the next logical choice – almost always got the nomination.  Often it was the runner-up from last time: George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, or Mitt Romney.

But now that is reversed. In the Democratic Party, it seems as if Hillary Clinton has the nomination if she wants it.  Usually this kind of conventional wisdom is overstated – as it was for Clinton in 2008 – but it doesn’t feel like that this time.  She is widely admired, and has the feel of both a solid institutional candidate and something new and historic (a woman). 

The Republican Party of 2013 is more like the Democratic Party of 1972 than its old conventionally conservative self. It is highly ideological, riven with internal disputes over tactics and philosophy, and a significant part of its base will oppose any establishment front-runner almost just because he or she is an establishment front-runner. So not only is the pre-race period likely to be marked by tumultuous debate, but anyone who temporarily emerges at the top will face a heightened scrutiny from many party activists.

So speculate away, but you’d be almost as successful if you literally read tea leaves. 

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