FACTS ONLY 2016: Sizing Up The Presidential Election

With election season fully upon us and the year’s first debate tonight, I wrote this primer for those seeking an easy point to Trump in. (That should say “jump” in, but you just learned lesson #1 of this election: Whenever possible, those informing you about this election will interpolate The Donald. Facts!) Below we look at the players in the game, where they stand, and how their rivalries will shape this country’s future. NO BIG DEAL. Let’s go!

The presidential campaign season seems to get longer all the time. Some even say it begins the day after Election Day. Those people are insane. But they’re not wrong! They’re just reflecting the nature of the times. These are crazy times, and as go the times, so goes the political process. And since it is officially 2016 — the year America elects a new president — we are already relatively deep into the home stretch of it all. In under one month, Iowa will hold the electoral season’s first caucus, which is the first time registered party members officially vote for the person they want to represent their party. And when this happens, despite all that you may have heard about the election until now, the landscape will swiftly reshape itself around the results, and the big picture will finally and truly begin to take shape.

So before that happens, and for those just joining this race, which is deeply in progress, let’s take a quick minute to catch up on the players, the drama, and the beauty before the madness.

Let’s go with the Democrats first. Most people figured this year would see the quick and easy coronation of Hillary Clinton as Democratic party nominee, as a sort of inevitable next act to her historic buckling, in 2008, to the winds of change that swept Barack Obama to his party’s nomination and then into the White House. While that may feel a touch mechanical — like, “Just wait your turn, Hillary, and we’ll put you on” — HRC is far too proactive to sit idly and watch the tide roll. In fact, the former Senator from New York spent much of the past eight years significantly stepping up her resume as Secretary Of State in the Obama cabinet, a move which allowed her to flex diplomatic chops, increase her standing in the international community, and slapback some of the goodwill she may have dropped while getting dirty trying to block Obama from his primary destiny.

So, Hillary in 2016: Swish? Not quite. Because for all the lofty bona fides Hillary Clinton brings in terms of experience, accomplishment, and the promise of breaking the Oval Office’s gender wall as our first female president, she has, once again, found herself losing footing on a grassroots level: In ’08, she slipped to a young idealistic Senator who seemed to whip the youth vote into a frenzy; in ’16, that equation is repeating itself, to some degree, as a sizeable bloc of impassioned young voters has once again rallied around another idealistic Senator. This guy’s a little less young, but with an even deeper history as an ideologue. As the Democrats stare down the Iowa caucuses, they’re watching a showdown take shape: HRC vs. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Clinton has led Sanders in Iowa polls for the past four months, but the Vermont Senator — whose #FeelTheBern campaign has galvanized the electorate by speaking directly to economic inequities and governmental gridlock in a manner that Clinton can’t ignore — has just bested Ms. Clinton in a major Iowa poll for the first time in four months. In the business, that’s called a “surge.” In the Clinton camp, that’s called a nightmare. Just eight days after Iowa comes the next primary showdown: February 9th in New Hampshire, a state which neighbors Bernie’s home of Vermont, and where the Monmouth poll has put Sanders over Clinton by a whopping 14%. Being a New England state, the fact that Vermont is tipping toward Sanders is understandable, but Clinton’s winter may be frozen if she also drops Iowa. Remember: In 2008, Obama upset Hillary in Iowa and it reset the stage, making people see him as a real prospect instead of just a “fairytale.”

For Sanders to repeat that feat, he’ll need to do something Obama did well: mobilize his young base during primary season, which, for all their attending of rallies, is not the time the youth are known to vote. But Bernie’s in a good position to do this, because the fuel for the engine of political awareness and “getting out the vote” is money (for ads, for organizers, for street teamers, for coffee) — and Bernie raised $33 million dollars in the last quarter of last year, just $4 million less than Hillary did, and more than enough to stoke his millennial fanbase. But all the money in the world can’t mobilize the millennial mind as much as something else Sanders has going for him: endorsements from thoughtful and politically conscious entertainers like Killer Mike.

Now, while Clinton is facing an unexpectedly vibrant challenge with Bernie Sanders’s campaign, at least the Democratic field has narrowed itself, essentially, to two candidates. On the Republican side, well, you can look at it two ways: One would be to say, this is the most crowded field in the modern political era, with candidates on candidates on candidates. And that would be true.

But another would be: “Trump’s running against a bunch of politicians.” And that would be fair and true, too. Over the course of 2015, the irascible and magnetic real estate-magnate turned television personality launched his unlikely campaign with the slogan “Make America Great Again!”, then upended all conventional political wisdom by seemingly freestyling his way through interviews and campaign rallies, apparently paying little mind to whether his speech might be offensive, much less prudent. And as the pundits kept thinking his latest statement was the last straw in his campaign, he kept coming out on top of basically every poll, all the time. It’s an absolute anomaly.

Trumpman was everywhere last year, and he’s only just spent his first dollars on a TV ad. (For comparison, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the establishment favorite coming into the election, has seen over $30 million spent in his support in 2015, between his personal campaign and the “super PAC” which he doesn’t control but lobbies on his behalf.) Meanwhile Trump, who spent zero dollars in 2015, accounted for 41% of all Republican candidate mentions in the combined press. In fairness to the combined press, though, the politics beat is a beast that needs its meat, and Donald serves up hot dishes of headline banter like an endless buffet of sirloin salaciousness. From a press perspective, he’s irresistible.

A quick and incomplete playlist of Trump’s greatest hits: Donald has promised his presidency would see a wall built on the Mexico border (and that the Mexican government would pay for it); proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the country; doled out schoolyard-style nicknames to foes (Bush = “Low Energy”); and, most recently, is amplifying chatter about the natural birth citizenship of Ted Cruz, the Texan Senator who was born in Canada to an American citizen, and who has emerged as Trump’s likely defeater in Iowa. (This is a play from Trump’s playbook at this point, as he pulled this “birther” card against Obama, too.)

In spite, and perhaps because, of all this, Trump finds himself atop the national Republican rankings, with no previous governmental experience but an undeniable knack for tapping into something that is very real in the American public this election cycle: A certain portion of the country is experiencing a clear and present anger, and a fear that things — like jobs, and control, and this country — are being taken from them. These people are hungry for unscripted authenticity, and immunity from moneyed interests, and to that end, a freewheeling billionaire appears to be the ticket.

While this Trump roast has taken up most of the oxygen in the GOP’s house, there’s another battle being fought there, just with less volume: The battle for second place. Which is not generally where you’d want to find yourself in an election, but in this case, this battle comes with a theory, and it goes like this: There’s a line of thinking that says Trump will implode, as soon as he loses a state or two, especially since his whole brand is “I’m #1!” So, they say, the real race is amongst everyone who isn’t Trump, to be in the best position to pick up the pieces after he falls apart.

And so, let’s take a quick look at the crowded non-Trump field that still remains, if slightly shellshocked, in the Republican primary: Heading into Iowa and New Hampshire, the main players are Texan Senator Ted Cruz, the favorite of conservative Christians, a bloc of voters that people expect will turn out in force in Iowa, and throughout the season; Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a young and talented politician who has become an establishment favorite despite showing up better for debates than he does for votes in the Senate (in fairness, this fact-based burn could also apply to fellow candidate Cruz, and former candidate Lindsey Graham); New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose progress has been handicapped by that ridiculous Bridgegate scandal, but whose brash style could work on those wooed by Trump but seeking actual executive governmental experience; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, an amiable and devout man whose inspiring backstory had charmed voters, but whose lack of foreign policy knowledge may have undone his campaign, which has seen staffers defecting rapidly; and Jeb Bush, a candidate who has reached incredible milestones for amount of money spent, and for having the most immediate family members to have served as president, and for worst return on those combined investments (currently polling around 6% nationally). There are others still in the race — like Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul and John Kasich and Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul and Rick Santorum — and there are a great number who have dropped out.

So while the media’s gaze may begin to smear the field into a Trump-vs-everyone-else blur, know that this thing is far from over, and all that maneuvering that’s happening under Trump is real, and important, and may just determine who the Republicans actually put up come November. In other words: Iowa approaches, it’s all still up in the air, and that air is beginning to get tight.

Breathe deep. The stage is set. It’s time for the show.

For more on the election, follow along at @factsonly and @amritsingh.

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