Election Night 2012
It was chaos in the Fox News headquarters on November 7th 2012 on the night of the US Presidential Elections.
Earlier in the day, there had been a measure of optimism in the studio. Republican nominee Mitt Romney had a wobbly campaign and was hamstrung by an infamous leaked video where he referred to 47% of the country as do-nothing moochers. It wasn’t smooth sailing sure, but the party faithful still believed they had the numbers to carry the day. Surely the country would not re-elect Barack Obama for a second term?
The optimism was short lived. Over and over, states were calling their results in favour of Barack Obama and the Democratic party. Key swing states – Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire – all turned blue. In the end, Obama won the electoral college vote by a handy margin of 332 to 206.
The on air results were pandemonium. Most famously Republican campaign advisor Karl Rove simply couldn’t comprehend what had happened and continually challenged Fox News host Megyn Kelly on the results, swearing black and blue that Romney might still carry Ohio (it wouldn’t have mattered anyway). Eventually, an exasperated Megyn Kelly fired a brutal shot at Rove:
“Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?”
It was a cutting remark on a desperate and defeated man but it was completely on-point and a rare moment of clarity for a network famous for their one eyed support of the GOP.
For nearly half a century, the Republican Party had employed the use of the Southern Strategy, a technique popularized by Richard Nixon’s campaign advisor Kevin Phillips, that targeted white, Evangelical voters en masse by using dog whistle tactics to prey on their fears of African Americans. For decades, it worked. But as America’s ethnic make up shifted and became broader and more diverse, the party sensationally failed to keep up with the times. They were asleep at the wheel. The polling data plainly stated that Barack Obama would defeat Mitt Romney but campaign strategists lived in denial. Worse still, it was the Republicans fifth loss of the popular vote in six elections. This was not an anomaly but a continuation of a two-decade long decline.
The problem that the party found for themselves was that they had courted a base using a tactic too reliant on fear and the persecution of others. For the party to recover, it wasn’t simply a matter of retaining the overwhelming support of white Evangelicals and reaching out to blacks, Hispanics, Muslims or the LGBT community. They had become beholden to a base that specifically identified with being Republican because it meant supporting the existing criminal justice system (which overwhelmingly punishes African Americans), bolstering anti-immigration policies (which loses them the Hispanic vote), conflating Islam with terrorism and putting religious values ahead of civil rights for LGBTs.
Anyone seen to be soft on a single one of these issues is quick to be called a RINO (Republican In Name Only) and swiftly punted to the curb during the Republica primary. The most moderate Republican candidate that ran for election in 2012 was Jon Huntsman, a former diplomat who believed in climate change and spoke fluent Chinese. He had a proven track record for foreign relations and showed impressive business acumen. At his peak he had less than 2% support from party voters.
The writing was on the wall and senior party members knew that the Republica Party had to move on from the Southern Strategy. Or as Lindsay Graham (Republican Senator, North Carolina) put it:
“We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business.”
The GOP would need to do some major rebuilding of their brand to challenge for the presidency in 2016 against the presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Losing the Culture War
For long stretches of his time in office, Barack Obama has been a president with unremarkable approval ratings.
For liberals, there has been disappointment and frustration over his failure to close Guantanamo Bay, his authorization of brutal overseas drone strikes which have a high rate of collateral damage and his failure to punish Wall Street for their conduct that lead to the GFC in 2008.
For conservatives, Obama has been responsible for an unprecedented ‘culture war’ that has changed the landscape of the country. Obama was the first American president to endorse and support marriage equality which the Supreme Court would eventually pass as federal law. He is an outspoken advocate for tighter gun laws and his centrepiece legislation – the Affordable Care Act – has given millions of uninsured Americans access to health care. Lastly, his failure to unequivocally support Israel and a lack of military action in Iran has left many amongst the American Right (actually, a majority) convinced that he is a ‘secret Muslim’ who, *ahem*, has designs on turning Capitol Hill into an Islamic caliphate.
So what has Barack Obama accomplished in his two terms as president? He has halved the unemployment rate that he inherited from George Bush. He bailed out and saved the auto industry. He shrunk the deficit by a trillion dollars. 8.5 million jobs have been created, more than six times what his predecessor achieved. Obama inherited a country that was in poor economic shape under George Bush and he has righted the ship. But he has done so in a fashion that hasn’t been able to address the gross wage imbalance that exists in the country. Young Americans today are having to come to terms with being the first generation in the post WWII era to be worse off than their parents. How the two parties view the American working class couldn’t be more different. Labor unions have been fighting for the minimum wage to be raised to $15. On the other hand, there’s a Republican govenor running for office who wants to eliminate minimum wage entirely.
Republicans are hardly going to invite comparisons of Obama’s economic performance to that of his predecessor. The financial recovery under the current administration has been robust enough that the GOP would look elsewhere to promote the credentials of their party. To galvanize the base, they looked to fight back on lost ground for the cultural direction of the country.
As it stands, they are losing that battle on virtually all the fronts.
Globally, the overwhelming majority of world leaders accept the science of climate change. Support for marriage equality in America is at an all time high. Last year, more Americans identified themselves as being pro-choice over pro-life. The overwhelming majority of Americans support some form of gun control. There is still a majority of Americans who do not have a favourable view of the Affordable Care Act but it is close to fifty-fifty. There’s never been a less popular time to be an anti-abortion, anti-marriage equality, climate science denying gun enthusiast in America.
The GOP would like to change that very much.
A recent Pew Research poll highlights the dilemma facing the GOP. They have cornered the market on white Southerners and the elderly. However, they are overwhelmingly the second choice when it comes to blacks, Asians, aetheists, educated women, Jews, Hispanics and Millenials. With a status quo candidate, they are effectively losing the election before they even start.
For the 2016 election, the Republican Party establishment wanted to find their own version of Barack Obama. A young, fresh face that signalled a changing of the guard that had the charisma and guile to not just ‘energize the base’ but to win over independents, ethnic minorities and the youth vote. They had their man in Latin American senator Marco Rubio of Florida. The consensus was that if Rubio could get through the primaries unscathed, they would be a fighting chance against Hillary.
In the 2016 Republican primaries, the establishment would get much more than they bargained for.
Clown Car Primaries
One of the interesting cultural differences between America as compared with other Western democracies is that their selection process for a party leader is done in public rather than behind closed doors. Candidates duke it out in an arduous season of debates, campaign rallies and caucuses which are held in various States across the country until a presumptive nominee is chosen. This extraordinarily long process is a pit trap for gaffes, pratfalls and ‘gotcha’ moments which can take a momentarily popular presidential candidate and then crush them in an instant. Just ask Howard Dean.
For two consecutive elections, the Republican party leaders lamented their brutal and prolonged primary season. They have been nicknamed Clown Car Primaries for the massive number of fringe candidates with bizarre beliefs who take turns fleetingly leading the polls before falling back into the pack as a safe ‘establishment endorsed’ candidate takes the position.
In the past eight years we’ve seen the antics of:
Michelle Bachman (“carbon dioxide is harmless and climate change is a hoax”, “The Lion King is gay propaganda”)
Herman Cain (quoted the Pokemon Movie in his concession speech, ran this amazing ‘smoking’ ad)
Mike Huckabee (campaigned on an endorsement from Chuck Norris)
Rick Santorum (invoked the deaths of WWII soldiers being let down if the country had government assisted health care)
Rick Perry (famously couldn’t remember how many government agencies he wanted to shut down during a debate, family holidayed at ‘Niggerhead’ ranch)
Scott Walker (wants to eliminate unions for government employees, get rid of minimum wage and ‘let the free market decide workers worth’)
All of these candidates unashamedly concentrated their efforts on winning over the most ardent far right members of their base and were hopelessly unsuitable for the general election. Viewed through a cynical lens, its easy to say that most of these campaigns were little more than acts of self promotion or a pitch for a plum panellist job on Fox News (which Mike Huckabee was successful in achieving).
At the end of the day, in the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries, after the clowns were shown the door, two safe establishment candidates – John McCain and Mitt Romney – were left standing. Both came up short against Barack Obama.
It lead many to believe that this would be the new normal for presidential politics and the Republican party. Clowns get the attention to start with after which the ‘safe’ candidate wins the day.
Then the 2016 Presidential campaign happened.
The Republican Party Eats Itself
For the 2016 Presidential Election, just as the two campaign seasons preceding it, there was an enormous conga line of Republican candidates.
“I’ve said that if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, I’d probably be dating her”
– Donald Trump
“As a teenager, I would go after people with rocks, and bricks, and baseball bats, and hammers”
– Ben Carson
“Marriage is one of the many options, and if people were honest about the welfare system today, how you get on welfare is not having a husband in the house”
– Jeb! Bush
“Obama’s just a social worker who wants to put ISIS on expanded Medicaid”
– Ted Cruz
“Racists wouldn’t exist if minorities just acted like white people”
– Bobby Jindal
“At a time when the American family is threatened like never before, redefining it away from the union of one man and one woman only promises to weaken it as a child-rearing, values-conveying institution”
– Marco Rubio
“It’s time to just hand it over to God and say ‘God you’re going to have to fix this'”
– Rick Perry
“In the world I come from and choose to live in, ‘gun control’ means you hit the target”
– Mike Huckabee
“Decisions concerning private property and associations should in a free society be unhindered. As a consequence, some associations will discriminate”
– Rand Paul
“Does human activity contribute to climate change? Of course it does. We all contribute in one way or another. By breathing we contribute to it”
– Chris Christie
“Planned Parenthood engages in partial birth abortion, in late term abortion. They alter those abortion techniques to harvest and sell body parts”
– Carly Fiorina
“Frankly, its time we punch the Russians in the nose”
– John Kasich
Some of these candidates followed the exact same trajectory as the joke candidates from 2008/12. Take neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Carson ran a campaign selling his life story as a tough kid born on the wrong side of the tracks who found Jesus Christ and then went on to enjoy enourmous success both professionally and as a motivational Seventh Day Adventist speaker. He lived the American dream. So inspired was he by the teachings of Christ that he campaigned on implementing a flat tax based on biblical tithing. “I got that idea, quite frankly, from the Bible, tithing. You make $10 billion a year, you pay a billion. You make $10 a year, you pay one. You get the same rates. That’s pretty darn fair if you ask me.”
He is an ardent supporter of the second amendment and has said that in his time working as a doctor “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away”. Is he disturbed by the speight of mass shootings in America? Mostly just disappointed. After nine people were shot dead at Umpqua Community College in Oregon he suggested that the victims shouldn’t have ‘let’ themselves get shot. “I would not just stand there and let him shoot me, I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.”
Carson’s run near the top of the polls lasted about a month. Unfortunately for Carson, some investigative journalists couldn’t corroborate his rags to riches story and had the nerve to suggest that he perhaps did not assault his family and friends as he had claimed. In a decade that has produced some truly strange political spectacles over the years in America, its hard to top the sight of a frontrunner of the Republican party arguing that the media were ‘trying to smear him‘ by suggesting that he didn’t attack his mother with a hammer.
There were plenty of other wild candidates but they all paled in comparison to Donald J Trump.
Trump announced his candidacy in bizarre fashion, riding down an escalator and waving to his admirers as though he were the Queen of England before giving a speech declaring his intention to forcibly evict 12 million illegal immigrants from the country (an estimated 250,000 a month for the entire four years of his term in office). He then stated that Mexicans in America were mostly rapists and that he planned to build a wall on the US/Mexican border which he expected Mexico to foot the bill.
His remarks made headlines and his poll numbers with Republican members shot up. And thus the template was set.
For the weeks after the announcement of his candidacy, there was general confusion from outsiders looking in as to what was going on. It wasn’t entirely clear if Trump (a friend to the Clintons and relatively left-leaning with his views in the past) was some sort of elaborate double agent, bringing down the party from the inside. The Southern strategy that the party had employed in the past was based on dogwhistle tactics. Alarmingly for senior party leaders, Trump was throwing raw meat to the Republican base and exposing the party’s seething resentment and hostility for all the world to see.
He was unapologetic and deflected a question from debate moderator Megyn Kelly regarding his misogynistic language towards women. He later suggested Kelly was menstruating and wasn’t thinking clearly when she asked the question.
He suggested John McCain and other American prisoners of war were losers for getting caught. Trump himself dodged the draught.
On Republican candidate Carly Fiorina: “”Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?…I mean, she’s a woman and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?” After his comments about Fiorina were published, Trump reaches his highest average poll numbers yet.
After the Paris terror attacks, Trump declared that he would implement a national database of Muslims. Later, after the terror attack in San Bernadino, he said he would block Muslims entering the country until he figured out ‘what was going on.’
For almost the entire election ‘pre-season’, he has lead the polls amongst Republican voters. Each comment was more outrageous than the last but it was like manna from heaven for the GOP faithful.
This left the establishment Republicans, with their aspirations of taking Marco Rubio into the general election, with their hopes in tatters.
The party had well and truly reaped what they had sown.
In a crowded field of contenders, Trump was the outright leader and he was running on a campaign that cruelly exposed the simplistic jingoism that mattered most to the conservative base. He was valued for ‘telling it like it is’ and it mattered not that his campaign was built on pledges that were utterly impossible to implement. The multi-billion dollar border wall. Hunting down and forcibly evicting quarter of a million people out of the country every month. Denying entry into America (including re-entry from American citizens) based on whether they were Muslim or not. There was no way that Rubio could compete with a campaign designed to appeal to the general electorate when the party faithful were far more interested in indulging Trump’s fantasy land.
Trump’s temperament during his campaign is not unlike that of a petulant ten year old and his popularity with conservative voters must infuriate those who had carefully crafted a pious and idealistic vision of the conservative movement. It must be absolutely crushing for Rand Paul, Jon Kasich and Lindsay Graham to feel they have the upper hand when it comes to knowledge on policy detail only for the crowd to roar with approval during debates as Trump boorishly attacks them for being ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ or ‘stupid’ or ‘a crybaby.’
Lastly, even the very cornerstone of the party’s values has been revealed as tissue thin in terms of priorities. For the last eight years, Republicans have attacked and questioned the credentials of Barack Obama as a church-going Christian. Donald Trump is unable to cite a single verse from the Bible, is twice divorced, has long held pro-choice views (conveniently dropped before the election) and appears to have a lazy, dot-point level of understanding of the Christian faith. It doesn’t seem to have affected his popularity one bit.
Tonight the primaries get under way in Iowa, formally kicking off the process to elect the next president of the United States of America.
After an unprecedented campaign for Donald Trump that has defied the predictions of pollsters and pundits, what happens next? No one really knows.
The statistician Nate Silver made a name for himself over the 2008 and 2012 elections by correctly picking 99 out of 100 electoral college votes . Here’s what he had to say about what would happen in Iowa.
Polling in Iowa is a rough gig. A 3-way tie is entirely plausible. So is Trump winning by 20.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) February 1, 2016
Only two people stand in the way of The Don claiming the mantle of Republican nominee for the presidency. Firstly, there is poor old Marco Rubio, languishly in third place with a wretched 13% approval rating according to the latest Des Moine Register poll in Iowa. Ahead of him, Texas senator Ted Cruz. Cruz would have made all the headlines around the world that Trump would have made…if Trump wasn’t running. He is equally hated by the Republican establishment and has made almost as many ruthless and extraordinary policy proposals.
Will the moderate conservative vote (whatever that is) unexpectedly come out in a show of support for Rubio? Will Cruz’s experience at campaigning at a grassroots level pay off and lead to an upset in Iowa? Whatever the outcome, the emergence of Trump as the front runner has turned the Republican party upside down and at war with itself.
Senior members of the party are in a panic because they know in the general election, Trump is unelectable and there is too much at stake with the next four year presidential term.
Being POTUS today is a tough gig. You face a hostile senate and gridlocked do-nothing congress that is filled with career politicians who are beholden to special interest groups and lobbyists. It’s extremely difficult to pass any significant piece of legislation. It took two years and a lot of Obama’s political capital to get through the Affordable Care Act.
However, the next president will almost certainly preside over not just one but as many as three selections of judges in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court remains the most influential and powerful law-making body in America and it is the role of the president to nominate a new judge when one retires or passes away. The Supreme Court has been the arbiters of landmark court rulings that have legalized abortion (Roe vs Wade) and marriage equality (Obergefell vs Hodges) in the country. The political leanings of the next appointee will have a significant impact on the future of Citizens United (campaign finance reform), the Affordable Care Act (government assisted healthcare) and other contentious pieces of legislation.
Personally, I feel pretty comfortable in calling the outcome as the polls suggest they will happen. Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination. Americans will go to the polls in November with his name on the ballot sheet for the Republican party.
Who will he face? For the longest time, it seemed a foregone conclusion that his opponent would be Hillary Clinton. The Democratic Party’s heir apparent was pipped to the post by Barack Obama in 2008 but it was assumed that she was a shoe-in for 2016. That is until she faced an unexpected challenge from an upstart socialist senator from Vermont.
More on that in another blog post.