President Trump? Stranger Things Might Happen

Political, social forces make the 2016 presidential race unpredictably interesting.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
Jan. 13, 2014, 4:21 a.m.

The ques­tion is ab­surdly pre­ma­ture, but we can’t help ourselves. Who’s go­ing to win the pres­id­ency in 2016?

“There are ba­sic­ally 50 life­times between now and then, so a lot’s go­ing to change,” Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive Dav­id Plouffe said Sunday, after re­luct­antly agree­ing with This Week host Martha Rad­datz that Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton and Re­pub­lic­an Chris Christie are front-run­ners for the party nom­in­a­tions.

“I pre­dict that a year from now we’re go­ing to be talk­ing about an­oth­er can­did­ate — some oth­er can­did­ate who has lit the fire in either party,” said Mat­thew Dowd, who worked for Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, but now is an in­de­pend­ent voice on This Week.

“I agree with that, for a change,” chuckled Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive Donna Brazile.

Dowd is right. It’s far too soon to speak with au­thor­ity about the next pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, and there are many reas­ons to sus­pect that the 2016 race will be re­shaped — if not won — by a can­did­ate who’s not yet on Wash­ing­ton’s radar. Here are four factors to con­sider.

His­tory is a guide. In June 2006, the Gal­lup Poll found Clin­ton with a wide lead over oth­er 2008 pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls, while Rudy Gi­uliani held a slight lead in the GOP race. Clin­ton even­tu­ally lost to then-Sen. Barack Obama, who was not even among the 10 Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates lis­ted by Gal­lup in 2006. He was that far off the radar. Gi­uliani, of course, washed out of the GOP cam­paign soon after it ac­tu­ally began.  (That poll was taken six months deep­er in­to the 2008 cycle than today is for the 2016 cam­paign.)

In­sur­gent cam­paigns flare late. Ross Perot was a cipher two years out from the 1992 cam­paign, and nobody in 2002 con­sidered Howard Dean a ser­i­ous can­did­ate for the 2004 Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion. Neither man won, but they both put a scare in­to the es­tab­lish­ment and had a sig­ni­fic­ant im­pact on U.S. policy and polit­ics bey­ond their cam­paigns.

Voters are sick of the status quo. The pub­lic’s trust in gov­ern­ment, polit­ics, and polit­ic­al parties is at re­cord lows, ac­cord­ing to a vari­ety of polls. A re­cord-high 42 per­cent of Amer­ic­an identi­fy as polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ents, Gal­lup found this month. Re­pub­lic­an iden­ti­fic­a­tion felt to 25 per­cent, the low­est Gal­lup has meas­ured since it began con­duct­ing in­ter­views by tele­phone 25 years ago. Demo­crat­ic iden­ti­fic­a­tion is un­changed from the last four years, at 31 per­cent, but that’s the low­est an­nu­al av­er­age in a quarter-cen­tury.

The pub­lic’s hun­ger for change fueled the in­sur­gent cam­paigns of Perot, Dean, and Obama, and it could spur a new one. Wrench­ing eco­nom­ic trans­ition, new tech­no­lo­gies that em­power the masses, and the lift­ing of lim­its on cam­paign dona­tions could make a 2016 in­sur­gency swift and sur­pris­ingly po­tent.

Brands are more fra­gile than ever. Busi­nesses lead­ers are strug­gling to build and main­tain their cor­por­ate repu­ta­tions in a crowded, cyn­ic­al, and fast-chan­ging mar­ket­place of ideas. “So, this is where we find ourselves: a world in which brands can be in­cred­ibly power­ful, but more chal­len­ging and more ex­pens­ive than ever to cre­ate and main­tain, and less re­si­li­ent,” writes Jonath­an Copul­sky in Brand Re­si­li­ence: Man­aging Risk and Re­cov­ery in a High-speed World.

The same forces con­spir­ing against cor­por­ate brands are a threat to polit­ic­al repu­ta­tions, a par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge for the likes of Clin­ton (“Memo to Hil­lary Clin­ton: You’re the Prob­lem”) and Christie (“How Christie Can Save His Ca­reer”).

In­sti­tu­tion­al blur­ring could lead to cros­sov­er. The Pew Re­search Cen­ter has doc­u­mented a dec­ades-long de­cline in the pub­lic’s faith in U.S. in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing busi­nesses, schools, churches, char­it­ies, me­dia or­gan­iz­a­tions, and, of course, polit­ics and gov­ern­ment. As these silos weak­en, the pub­lic will be in­creas­ingly more open to people and brands that defy in­sti­tu­tion­al bound­ar­ies. Bit­coin, for ex­ample, is a di­git­al cur­rency in­vad­ing the space of tra­di­tion­al fin­an­cial in­sti­tu­tions.

How might this ap­ply to polit­ics? The bar­ri­ers to entry will be lower. We’re far more likely to see a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate emerge from out­side the tra­di­tion­al polit­ic­al com­munity. A pro­voc­at­ive thought: In our celebrity-in­fused cul­ture, why couldn’t the next game-chan­ging in­sur­gent can­did­ate — if not pres­id­ent — emerge from the world of sports or en­ter­tain­ment? Cer­tainly, the path from a cor­por­ate suite to the Oval Of­fice is less cluttered than usu­al.

Pres­id­ent Trump? No way. The Amer­ic­an pub­lic is too smart to let that hap­pen. But stranger things might.

DIS­CLOS­URE: I wrote a book in 2005 with Dowd and Demo­crat Doug Sosnik about lead­er­ship of polit­ic­al, busi­ness, and re­li­gious or­gan­iz­a­tions.

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