The 2016 presidential election cycle has thus far undermined all conventional wisdom. Six months ago, very few “political experts” would have thought that Donald Trump would end up being the nominee for the Republican Party. Observers thought that he would eventually implode and that his xenophobic, sexist and politically incorrect statements would catch up with him. The outlandish things he said would have easily disqualified other candidates – but not for Trump. He proved everyone wrong. The climate among a certain slice of the electorate and voter behavior have clearly been misjudged. During this year’s Transatlantic Conference of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), campaign experts from the Republican and Democratic Party shared their insights on the 2016 Presidential campaigns.
2016: A Unique Election Year
In 2008, the Republican Party had twelve candidates running for president. In 2012, there were nine candidates. During this year’s cycle, a total of seventeen candidates emerged on the Republican side. Five of them suspended their candidacy before voting began in February. While the 2008 and 2012 presidential race yielded two or three candidates that were considered very promising, during this cycle, the Republican Party had four sitting governors, five former governors, four sitting senators, a former senator plus three non-politicians in Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump. Out of that group, between six to eight people had a viable path to the Republican nomination. The high number of promising Republican candidates made the 2016 election cycle an entirely different situation from those of the past.
Getting on the Ballot
One of the first challenges presidential candidates face during the race is getting on the ballot, which is an enormous undertaking. Candidates must meet a variety of complex, state-specific filing requirements and deadlines, which determine whether a candidate appears on an election ballot. An individual can either seek the nomination of a political party, run as an independent, or run as a write-in candidate. Every state has different rules about what it takes to get on the ballot. In some states, candidates simply have to pay filing fees, which could range from $1,000 to $40,000. In other states it takes massive signature gathering efforts to get on the ballot, which requires either a significant volunteer operation or financial resources to pay people to collect signatures. And then there are many states with a combination of fees, signatures and paperwork. The time window during which the signatures have to be collected varies from state to state. Therefore, planning the calendar and the budget as well as the strategy for getting on the ballot is quite a large undertaking and can be very expensive and time consuming.
This election cycle has revealed that policy ideas, experience and qualifications appear to matter less than ever. The candidate with the highest entertainment factor has had the most appeal. This may be attributed to Americans increasingly getting their news from entertainment instead of educational or religious institutions. In March, it was reported that Trump received two billion dollars’ worth of free media. In addition, the majority of media contributions put Trump in the limelight. Instead of focusing on asking the other candidates about their own policy ideas and visions for the country, many of the questions they were asked from reporters were about Trump. It was also reported recently that anchors on major news networks get bonuses for higher ratings and so it was in their best interest to keep their show talking about Trump in order to increase viewer ratings. The conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh critically notes that we are not really discussing news anymore. Instead, we are discussing narratives. This is not only frustrating for the other candidates, but it also paints a one-sided picture and is very telling of the media’s role in the presidential election.
The 2016 Convention – Clear the Stage for Trump
For many prominent Republicans, a contested GOP national convention was the last hope for a nominee other than Donald Trump. However, with Trump’s win in Indiana’s primary and Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich suspending their campaigns, Trump has become the presumptive nominee and will be formally declared so at the Republican Party Convention in Cleveland this summer. The convention will be interesting for a lot of reasons, but most of all for the nominee because the nominee determines everything at the convention: who is going to be on the committees, what the program looks like, what the schedule looks like and who will speak. Observers expect that Donald Trump will ensure that he will be center stage during all four days of the gathering. In addition, prominent Republicans have said they are not attending the convention. Another unknown is whether Trump will reveal his pick for Vice President.