The many and extreme candidates of the GOP
|Tuesday, 15. December 2015 1 comment(s)||
Senior Research Fellow - The Global Security research programme
Ted Cruz’s statement that he wants to use nuclear weapons on ISIS or Donald Trump’s proposal to ‘ban Muslims’ may come back to haunt them
The ongoing fight to capture the Republican Party, commonly referred to as the Grand Old Party (GOP), presidential nomination for next year’s elections is unusual in modern times, and exposing the deeply troublesome and extremist affinities of the party faithful that make up the bulk of primary voters. Tonight the legion of candidates still in the race will again meet in the "top-card” and "undercard” debates in Las Vegas. What has contributed to the relatively large number of candidates still in the race, and why is it dominated by such extremist positioning?
Currently there are four candidates that are polling in the top four both nationally as well as in a number of the early primary states according to Real Clear Politics polling data: Donald Trump (30%, as average of national polls), Ted Cruz (16%), Ben Carson (14%), and Marco Rubio (14%). In addition to these, a number of candidates are doing well in individual states such as New Hampshire, where John Kasich (8%) and Chris Christie (8%) are active. The remainder of the other candidates still running poll around the two percent mark.
While there are a number of systemic reasons for why there are so many candidates, one new explanatory variable is the freedom with which campaigns can be funded as a result of the Supreme Court decisions about campaign finance over the past half-decade; the most notorious being Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Speechnow.org v. Federal Election Commission
The rulings opened the door to unlimited campaign contributions by individuals into the turbo-charged versions of political action committees (PACs): the super PACs. The super PACs are not supposed to be a part of the campaign itself, nor are they to directly coordinate, but the reality is that usually the super-PACs are led by a close associate of the candidate. Therefore, they can easily coordinate approaches and themes. Because of this funding mechanism, candidates who appeal to specific donors can continue their campaign for much longer, because a super-PAC supporting them can receive just a few large donations.
The extremist positioning in the campaign is, however, not primarily due to the need for candidates to push positions held by a handful of donors. Rather, the political polarization evident in Washington and state level politics is simply magnified as candidates feel compelled by the composition of the primary voter pool to take positions that are held by the hard core party faithful. In the case of Donald Trump, the campaign is moreover built on a rather sophisticated understanding of the current political mood and media attention landscape, rather than a need to cater to primary voters. Ted Cruz seems most adept at balancing the extremities of his own party, while Marco Rubio (who seems most electable and therefore likely ultimate GOP candidate in the fall) has sought to avoid openly catering to the most extreme fringes.
What will be interesting to follow is how the eventual winner of the primaries/caucuses manages to explain away the more extreme positions and statements, which will not appeal to voters in the general election. This has become more difficult in an era where everything is recorded and easy to publicize. Yet, the increasingly frenetic cycling of media suggests controversies can be buried faster. On the other hand, super PACs with deep pockets can keep even minor issues alive, if they choose to. In the end, Ted Cruz’s statement that he wants to use nuclear weapons on ISIS or Donald Trump’s proposal to ‘ban Muslims’ may come back to haunt them, but equally a much smaller transgression may prove decisive in the fall of 2016 when the next President of the United States will be elected.
The column is part of a series of FIIA columns on the US presidential elections.
Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors