By Bernd Debusmann
In the most bizarre U.S. election campaign in generations, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have taken pole position in the race to become the presidential candidates of their parties.
Trump easily won the Republican primary in South Carolina on February 27. On the same day, Clinton placed first in the Democratic caucus in Nevada. Trump, the flamboyant New York billionaire, promptly predicted that he and Clinton will face each other in the general elections.
It’s still almost nine months to election day, November 8, and a lot can happen before then. But the field of candidates is narrowing, and the campaign is highlighting divisions in both the Republican and Democratic parties and a huge gap in their followers’ world views.
The next stage in the contest for the respective nominations is on March 1.
Contests on “Super Tuesday” in 12 states and one territory, American Samoa, could well lead to the Republican field narrowing from five to three — Trump, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz — and provide a pointer to the prospects of Bernie Sanders, the leftish senator from Vermont, overcoming Clinton.
Both parties will announce their nominees in late July.
Trump and Sanders have been the biggest surprises of the campaign.
The race so far has been full of surprises, the biggest being the enduring popularity of Trump. He has made global headlines with proposals that include deporting 12 million illegal immigrants, banning Muslims from traveling to the United States, killing the families of terrorists, torturing suspects, making the Mexican government pay for a wall along the 2,000-mile border and punishing American companies that move production abroad. The list goes on.
Trump has topped the Republican polls since he announced his candidacy last July. He won two of the first three primaries and leads the polls again.
There have been surprises on the Democratic side, too. Sanders, 74, has been a magnet for millennials — voters young enough be his children — with a promise of free college education and an end to an economic system he says is rigged in favor of the “billionaire class”.
Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist, a label widely misunderstood in a country where many conflate socialism with communism.
American pundits predict he will lose to Clinton because even some of those who sympathize with his views have doubts over his electability and fear voting for Sanders might tip the scales in favor of whoever emerges as the Republican candidate.
Attitude trumps policy in this campaign.
The pundits have been wrong before in this election cycle, not only by dismissing Trump as a passing phenomenon but also by misjudging the prospects of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who wanted to follow his father and brother to the White House.
The scion of one of the most powerful political families in the United States amassed a war chest of more than $100 million — much of it from wealthy family friends — within months of launching his presidential run last June.
He was the favorite of the Republican Party establishment, many of whose members took his nomination for granted.
But Bush, who has described himself as an introvert, fared poorly in debates, and his emphasis on experience and his accomplishments as a two-time governor of Florida failed to impress primary voters disenchanted with conventional politics and the party establishment.
Bush’s misfortune, commented the Bush-friendly Wall Street Journal, was to run in a year when attitude trumps policy.
Bush dropped out of the race after losing in all three of the early contests, placing a distant fourth in South Carolina behind Rubio and Cruz. Both are Cuban-Americans who hardened their position on immigration to compete with Trump.
Obama believes American voters are too sensible to elect Trump.
Here is another oddity in an unusual election year. After Mitt Romney lost to Obama in the 2012 presidential elections, the Republican National Committee issued a detailed report on what went wrong and what to do to get it right next time.
A key to victory, it concluded, would be to champion “comprehensive immigration reform” to capture votes from the Latino community, the largest minority group in the country.
Its members are not single-issue voters, but the majority leans towards the Democrats, as Clinton and Sanders are keenly aware.
Both are aggressively courting Latinos and squabbled over polls that showed Sanders doing better with Latinos in the Nevada caucus than Clinton. One explanation: they were younger than non-Latinos, and youth gravitates to Sanders.
With so much time to go before election day, forecasts need to be taken with a pinch of salt. But here is a prediction from a man with personal experience of close-fought campaigns: Barack Obama.
Asked to comment on the 2016 race at a press conference after hosting Asian leaders, the president said:
“I’ll leave it you to speculate on how this whole race is going to go. I continue to believe Mr. Trump will not be President. And the reason is because I have a lot of faith in the American people. And I think that being President is a serious job…. And the American people are pretty sensible, and I think they’ll make a sensible choice in the end.”
Bernd Debusmann is a former columnist for Reuters who has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and United States. He has reported from more than 100 countries (and lived in nine). He was shot twice in the course of his work – once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria.