Field Theory

It’s an unusual election cycle. Hillary Clinton has the Democratic field to herself, and is effectively unchallenged, as if she were an incumbent seeking reelection. She faces less competition for her party’s nomination than did incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Gerald Ford in 1976 – or two-term sitting Vice President Al Gore in 2000. While there are several theories bandied about to explain why no other strong candidates have emerged, the most persuasive is the perception that Hillary Clinton cannot be beaten, leading the nation’s most talented and ambitious Democrats to the same conclusion: stay out of her way.

This observation is not intended to diminish the candidacy of Bernie Sanders or Lincoln Chafee, both of whom have been good public servants, and hold generally sound policy positions. Sanders’ weakness as a candidate is much more about his style than his substance. In a better world, his positions would frame the debate for numerous socio-economic issues, particularly in an era of extreme wealth and income inequality.

On the Republican side, the field is the largest seen by either party in modern history, with 17 candidates, each of whom with a better chance to win the nomination than Sanders or Chafee (or Jim Webb). In a healthy democracy of more than 300 million people, it should neither be rare nor surprising to have 20 individuals pursue the presidency in a given election cycle. In fact, one might regard the state of the Republican field as a rarely-attained ideal.

But politicians are (almost) never so smart or dumb as we imagine them to be, particularly where their self-interest is implicated. Thus it is that the extremely small size of the DNC field and the unusually large size of the GOP field can each be explained by a single theory. Just as Hillary Clinton is so strong a candidate that she’s scared every significant possible challenger from entering, the GOP field is so dismally weak that even George Pataki thinks he has a shot.

To be clear, the Field Guide would take the large size of the GOP field as a kind of opinion poll. Early front-runners Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were not intimidating enough to keep others out of the race. Each time another Republican enters the field, he tacitly opines that the candidates already in the race are beatable. The persistence of Donald Trump’s candidacy underscores this point. Far from being drummed from the race by the seasoned politicians against whom he’s contending, Trump handily won the first debate, and now has more than double the support of the strongest of his rivals!

All of this bodes well for liberals. As strong as Hillary Clinton seems to experienced DNC politicians, the GOP field seems remarkably weak to Republicans. With an electoral map that enormously advantages Democrats, liberals have every reason to be optimistic.

 

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