Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Mar 09, 2016
To the insurgents the spoils: America’s unusual 2016 primary elections

America’s 2016 presidential primary elections have surprised the country’s most seasoned political observers. On the Republican side, those most qualified by distinguished careers of government service, including Jeb Bush and John Kasich, have either abandoned the race or are struggling to stay afloat. Instead, insurgent candidates including tycoon Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz are dominating the contest. Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton expected a coronation but has encountered surprisingly vigorous resistance from her septuagenarian socialist challenger, Bernie Sanders, despite her formidable advantages in funding and establishment support. American voters are in a revolutionary mood, with significant implications for the future of the country and its place in the world.

Republicans entered this presidential campaign cycle confident that the election was theirs for the taking. Clinton is a flawed candidate: she is not a natural talent on the campaign trail and lacks President Obama’s rhetorical power to make audiences swoon. She also has baggage, as demonstrated by the continuing inquiry by America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation into her use of a private computer server for classified official business when she was Secretary of State.

By contrast, Republicans could boast a diverse field of successful governors, Senators, and business leaders offering agendas of reform conservatism to appeal to the majority of Americans who do not approve of President Obama’s record and believe the country is on the wrong track. Republicans already run most of the country’s state legislatures and governors’ mansions, as well as controlling the US Senate and House of Representatives. They are the country’s governing party. The White House looked well within their grasp.

But Republican voters have not been willing to buy what the party’s governing wing is selling. Angry about growing income inequality in the country and wage stagnation that puts the median family no better off than they were 20 years ago, and exasperated by politicians in Washington who seemed unwilling or incapable of addressing their concerns, voters in the early primary states have supported outsider candidates who promise to subvert the governing establishment. This pattern continued to hold in the March 8 primaries: Trump romped to victory in multiple states while Sanders stunningly upset Clinton in America’s industrial heartland state of Michigan, promising to take his “people’s revolution” on to the rest of the country.

What are the implications of these dynamics for the agenda of the next president? America’s traditional policy of free trade could be an early casualty. Already, Clinton has pivoted from championing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement when she was Secretary of State to opposing it as a candidate for president. This is at least partly a response to Sanders’ demagogic protectionism — a stance that helped secure his victory in Michigan, demonstrating its dangerous traction with voters.

Among Republicans, Trump has threatened to erect high tariff barriers against both economic competitors like China and allies like Japan, as well as to renegotiate existing agreements that he unconvincingly argues have harmed the American economy. Cruz was an early supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership who changed course to oppose it. Internationalists like Marco Rubio and John Kasich back the deal, but taking a responsible position in the national interest earns them little love from voters.

US relations with key allies could be bumpier under the next U.S. administration. Trump promises to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, which would create an immediate crisis with America’s third-largest trading partner. He also pledges to charge allies like Japan and Germany the cost of the U.S. forces stationed on their territories, perplexing friends in Tokyo and Berlin who understand that US security guarantees exist to serve American interests first and foremost. And he speaks approvingly of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, sending a chill through the ranks of NATO allies who view Russia as the greatest threat to European security.

Yet, even a President Hillary Clinton could raise anxieties in allied capitals: vulnerable countries on Europe’s periphery have not forgotten her announcement of the “reset” of US-Russian relations, only seven months after the Russian Army invaded Georgia. Japanese and other Asian friends worry that her signature policy, when Secretary of State, of spearheading the US “pivot” to Asia was over-promised and under-delivered. They note that the Obama administration in which she served has not been sufficiently attentive to the requirements of balancing Chinese power in Asia to assure regional stability.

The US primary campaign still has several chapters left to be written. If Marco Rubio wins his home state of Florida on March 15 while John Kasich wins his home state of Ohio, both rich in electoral delegates, the race could take on a different hue and lead to a contested Republican convention in the summer that denies Trump a winning majority of delegates for the presidential nomination. By contrast, if Ted Cruz consolidates his emerging position as the leading alternative for the Republican ticket, Trump will be confronted with his first head-to-head matchup after months in which his opponents have helpfully fractured the field against him, allowing him to sweep to victory in state after state by securing only a minority of the vote.

Although Republicans have set their cause back grievously through such a divisive primary campaign, Democrats should not be measuring the curtains in the White House just yet. Trump’s dramatic success among white working-class Americans could threaten Clinton’s ability to win big Midwestern and other vote-rich states in the general election, scrambling the usual electoral map. Sanders may also draw enough blood with his populist appeal that the Democratic convention puts forward a platform too far to the left to appeal to America’s moderate majority, forcing Clinton to run as the liberal she is not. More broadly, with so much anger and insecurity seething in the country, it does not seem obvious that the outcome of this election will necessarily be to install in the Oval Office the privileged heir of the country’s Democratic Party dynasty.

Daniel Twining is a Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a former official of the George W. Bush administration and a veteran of every Republican presidential campaign since 2000.
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Daniel Twining

Daniel Twining

Daniel Twining is Director and Senior Fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States where he leads a 15 member team ...

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