With all due respect to those Democrats in the nation’s capital holding a presidential primary next Tuesday, the jury’s already rendered its verdict.
Donald Trump will be the Republicans’ nominee – the first nonpolitician to earn that distinction since Dwight Eisenhower back in 1952. Hillary Clinton will do the honors for the Democrats – the first woman to lead a major party into a general election.
As the dust settles on what’s been an adventurous past twelve months (my timeline starts with Trump’s campaign kickoff remarks on June 16 of last year), here are five surprises in this unorthodox election year.
1. No Love For Guvs. Reams of paper and a sea of terabytes and petabytes (plus a small ocean of distilled spirits) will be devoted to the art and science of explaining the political phenomenon that is Trump.
So let’s focus elsewhere.
Once upon a time, there were 17 Republican presidential candidates – nine of them past or present governors.
It didn’t take long for the herd to thin. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the early darling of the Republican big-money crowd, didn’t advance past South Carolina. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a favorite of the chattering class given his folksy appeal and history of winning contentious elections, didn’t even make it to Iowa. Nor did former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the first of the 16 GOP fatalities.
In the end, not a single Republicans governor came close to denying Trump the nomination – yes, that includes Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the last big-name state executive standing. It's the first time in 20 years that a GOP governor won’t head into the national convention either leading or second in delegates amassed.
The significance? The 31 Republican governors nationwide are the GOP’s security blanket – its best hope for rehabilitating the party’s brand. Should Republican primary voters continue to reject every presidential hopeful whose message begins with: “As we’ve proven in my state . . .”? If so, the GOP will have to look elsewhere for new leaders.
2. A Familiar March and April. The Republicans’ surprise ending notwithstanding, the early GOP primaries and caucuses served their purpose: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina whittled the field to a more manageable number.
Of the 12 Republican candidates with active campaigns going into the calendar year, seven didn’t make it past February. Two more contenders – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson – didn’t make it past the second Tuesday in March.
The funny thing: for Republicans, 2016 played out a lot like 2012. Four years ago, Mitt Romney won big in the early-March “Super Tuesday” (7 of 10 states, 223 delegates to only 112 for his closest rival). But it wasn’t until the end of April, after Romney had swept all eight of the month’s primaries, that the Republican National Committee declared a presumptive nominee.
And 2016? Trump received 255 delegates – 37 more than Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – in the first of the two “Super Tuesdays”. The second time around, Trump steamrolled Cruz, 228-51. After losing Wisconsin’s April 5 primary, Trump swept the month’s remaining contests. The RNC’s papal blessing: it came on May 3, only eight days later than Romney’s four years before.
3. Fool Me Once, Fool Me Twice. Two millennia before anyone first uttered “triangulation”, there was a pragmatist by the name Aristotle who thus observed: “Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope”.
2008’s deception: Barack Obama convincing Generation Y to side with him rather than Hillary Clinton, then failing to deliver on a laundry list of progressive promises (including that over-the-top rhetoric about slowing the rising oceans and healing the planet).
Fooled once, how did Gen Y react? By falling even harder for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He received over 70% of the under-30 in this year’s Democratic primaries versus only 60% for Obama. And he earned more youth votes than Clinton and Trump combined. This, despite such Danish socialist pie-in-the-sky concepts like single-payer heath care, monster tax hikes and free college tuition that will never see the light of day in Congress.
Once all the Democratic votes are counted, a quarter of Sanders’ support will have come from young voters, as compared to only 10% for Clinton. The significance: America’s millennial generation is now 80-million strong. It’s the largest age group in over a century. Clinton needs the voting bloc on board and en masse if she’s to defeat Trump.
By the way, the youth vote isn’t just an American enigma. Across the pond, the 18-29 turnout may decide the fate of this month’s “Brexit” vote. Down under, Australian election officials ponder what to do with the one-quarter of that nation’s 18-to-24-year-olds who haven’t bothered to enroll to vote.
4. 59 Flavors Of Unconventional. This wasn’t the first time that America was graced by presidential candidates who were, to be polite about it, unorthodox.
In 1992, Ross Perot garnered nearly 19% of the national vote despite coming across as the daft uncle you’re glad visits only once a year. In both that and the subsequent presidential contest, Pat Buchanan tormented the GOP establishment as, basically, a parochial-school bully shoving around a field of timid WASPs.
In 2016, Trump and Sanders took the concept of unconventional to new heights. They challenged their parties’ power structures, they wagered on free media and perceived momentum trumping nut-and-bolts organizing. At all times, they turned common sense on its head (no way an avowed socialist should fare well in a capitalist economy; an anti-immigrant message should stand little chance in a nation that embodies the immigrant dream).
In the end, Trump and Sanders combined won 59 primaries and caucuses (36 for The Donald, 23 for Bernie) – about 57 more than most expected, other than New Hampshire and Vermont.
Not too shabby.
5. Party Down – Both Parties, That Is. In an election in which control of both the White House and Congress are very much in doubt, which national party would you rather not be at this hour?
A Republican presidential field that supposedly was the GOP’s strongest in decades instead was largely defined by its inability to deny Trump the nomination, much less take him on in debates and daily discourse. Should Trump lose this fall, it’s the same quandary for Republicans in 2020: outsiders, pragmatists and conservatives wrestling over the party’s conscience.
Not that the Democratic Party is any picnic. Consider Clinton’s rivals for the nomination: a 74-year-old socialist with little to show despite a quarter of a century on Capitol Hill, plus three relative obscure former officeholders. For Clinton, surviving Sanders was more about perspiration than aspiration.
How fragile is the Democratic existence? Should tragedy (or a criminal indictment) suddenly befall Clinton, the party elders mostly likely would turn to Vice President Joe Biden – a personable but gaffe-prone two-time presidential loser attempting the rarity of a sitting vice president trying to ascend to the Oval Office.
Collectively, it’s two parties that are offering American arguably the most uncomfortable lot of nominees since 1968 and the choices of Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon and George Wallace — coincidentally, the first presidential election in which Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were eligible to vote.
All the more reason why they should appreciate the nation’s quandary.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.