It's Time To Admit: Nobody Knows Anything About The 2016 Campaign

The old "rules" of presidential politics no longer seem to apply.
Brian Snyder / Reuters

Before he demeaned, guaranteed and taunted his way to the top of the polls -- indeed, before the very first “Make America Great” hat even came off of the assembly line -- the Republican Party got its first incontrovertible evidence of the extent of its problem with Donald Trump, via a report in The Washington Post.

It started harmlessly enough. In early July, The Post cited unnamed Republican donors and consultants in reporting on a phone conversation that Trump had with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

Trump had launched his candidacy three weeks earlier with a barrage of insults against illegal immigrants that had stopped just short of asking Congress to declare Mexican-American War II, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise that the head of the party whose nomination he was seeking might want to convey some concern.

According to the Post’s account, the description of which the RNC confirmed at the time, Priebus called Trump and urged him to “tone it down."

In another time and with another candidate, that would have been the end of it. The Republican Party’s referee had stepped in to rein in one of its combatants for doling out low blows. What the RNC didn’t count on, however, was that Trump was fighting an entirely different kind of bout. Not only would Trump continue fighting however he wanted, he was about to head-butt the referee for good measure.

“Totally false reporting on my call with @Reince Priebus,” Trump tweeted soon after the Post published its story. “He called me, ten minutes, said I hit a ‘nerve’, doing well, end!”

And what were the repercussions of Trump’s direct rebuttal to the story being told by GOP powerbrokers to official Washington’s most venerated chronicler? Unbridled success, as it turned out.

Trump promptly took over first place in a national poll of Republican primary voters -- a position he has held in every public survey conducted since then, even as he has continued to take on previously unassailable sacred cows in GOP politics, ranging from John McCain’s war heroism to George W. Bush’s record on terrorism.

Republicans who believe the party will need to put forward a less-contemptuous nominee, in order to retake the White House next November, were caught flat-footed.

“I don’t think anybody thought he would take off the way he has, and there was never a strategy meeting where people said, ‘Donald Trump is going to be a serious force,’” one GOP official in Washington told HuffPost in recalling the weeks after Trump entered the race leading up to the exchange with Priebus. “I think when Trump slapped Reince back and just dismissed him -- not even as the junior varsity, but the freshman squad -- that’s when it sunk in. It was very clear then that the old rules didn’t apply anymore.”

Trump’s rise and sustained competitiveness in the race has been a trick that just about nobody -- perhaps not even the candidate himself -- thought that he could pull off initially, when those old rules still seemed to be in place. The same goes for Ben Carson, a man who campaigns sporadically and never met a tenuous Nazi analogy he didn’t like, and is being rewarded handsomely in polls for his rhetorical shamelessness.

And it says as much about modern presidential politics as it does either GOP outsider’s political savvy. Put simply, the assumptions that govern campaigns are no longer operable.

Trump and Carson are, in some respects, the symptom, not the cause. Everyone knew this election cycle could be a tough one for GOP insiders, but few realized initially just how tough. When Carly Fiorina is added to the mix -- another Republican White House contender who has never held public office -- the anti-politicians in the GOP field continue to poll at more than 50 percent among likely GOP primary voters.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

The biggest victims of this newcomer-enamored dynamic have been the very politicians that the GOP has long viewed as its best 2016 weapon: governors.

After a first-term Democratic senator was launched into a two-term presidency in 2008, Republican leaders began the 2016 race with a collective agreement that it was time the party looked outside of Washington to find its standard-bearer.

In trying to channel this apparent sentiment, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry was fond of predicting that a governor would emerge from the vast crop of GOP candidates. This campaign, he declared confidently, would become a “show me, don’t tell me” election -- the implication being that governors who have produced positive outcomes in their states would be rewarded over senators and political newcomers more gifted in rhetoric than results.

But Perry went nowhere fast and is now out of the race, as is onetime front-runner Scott Walker, another strong-on-paper contender from the party’s gubernatorial ranks.

Meanwhile, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is still treading water in single digits, and other big-hitting statewide chief executives like Ohio’s John Kasich, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Arkansas’ Mike Huckabee continue to struggle for political oxygen. Two other former GOP governors -- Jim Gilmore and George Pataki -- barely register in polls.

"In this environment, being a politician is really bad,” Dave Carney, a longtime Republican strategist who worked with Rick Perry during the 2012 election cycle, told The Huffington Post last month. “Not just a Washington politician -- even being a politician from 10 years ago is really bad.”

Instead of the Washington outsiders, it is the proud novices who are getting the majority of the support along with upstart first-term senators -- Florida’s Marco Rubio, who appears to be increasingly well-positioned to make a run as the voting nears, and Texas'. Ted Cruz, who has had fundraising success to this point and appears poised to benefit if Trump or Carson does eventually implode.

Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

This new Wild West dynamic in which the only constant is political chaos may well change as the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary near. GOP honchos like former RNC Chairman Michael Steele still are holding tightly to the belief that the governors still in the race will eventually benefit when voters start getting serious.

"I think the process is ideally catered to someone like a governor who can speak about executive leadership. It is harder for a legislator to talk about balancing budgets," Steele said. "I think when looking at Perry and Scott Walker, it’s not so much an indictment on governors and more a matter of how they performed."

But there is a more ominous indication that the old rules of success no longer apply in Republican presidential politics: The great advantage that establishment-friendly candidates have long enjoyed -- the ability to generate and then have their allies spend gobs of cash, especially on television -- has largely been fruitless to this point.

According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, outside groups -- super PACs and political “nonprofits” -- have already poured in more than $33 million to promote Republican candidates in the primary campaign through mass communication like television, radio, online advertising, direct mail and phone-banking.

The biggest spender so far has been Bush's Right to Rise super PAC, which has already dropped $14.7 million, mostly on TV ads. The group has spent $8.2 million in New Hampshire, $3.8 million in Iowa and $2.6 million in South Carolina, all to little discernible effect, as Bush’s tepid poll numbers have scarcely budged.

America Leads, a super PAC supporting Christie, has spent $5.9 million, with $3.8 million of that going to New Hampshire. Christie’s highest share of the vote in any poll conducted since July in the Granite State, meanwhile, has topped out at 7 percent.

Kasich's super PAC, New Day for America, spent $3 million total and $1.8 million in New Hampshire -- an investment that appeared to have given him an initial bump that has since worn off. Spending to support other candidates, like the $2 million for Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) in New Hampshire, or the $1.3 million promoting Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) in Iowa, has similarly done nothing for their slim fortunes.

Meanwhile, two candidates whose most significant source of outside help has been free media attention -- Trump and Carson -- have consistently remained the top two candidates in both national and statewide polls.

Democrats, too

It’s not just on the Republican side where the old rules of politics appear to be just that: old.

Comb through the archives of just about any Democratic strategist’s assessment or data journalist’s algorithm at the 2016 campaign’s outset, and you’ll find general agreement on one thing: Unlike in 2008, when her strength as a candidate was at times overstated, Hillary Clinton’s impending coronation as the party’s standard-bearer really was inevitable this time around.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the genteel, surprise-free Democratic nominating contest that most people were expecting, even after Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren decided not to run. Clinton turned out, once again, to be a flawed candidate, hampered by her campaign’s inability to defuse a slow-burning scandal over her use of a personal email server while secretary of state.

Meanwhile, a 74-year-old socialist from Vermont with the personal touch of a hedgehog stepped in to fill the void, regularly drawing the biggest crowds of the campaign and building a lead in the nation’s first primary state of New Hampshire, where Clinton’s strength only months earlier had appeared close to untouchable.

Summertime dalliances with anti-establishment candidates are nothing new in presidential campaigns. But now, with New Hampshire's fall foliage at its peak, it has become clear that Sen. Bernie Sanders has staying power. Of the 680,000 donors to his campaign, only 270 have contributed the maximum amount, giving his campaign a veritable ATM machine upon which to draw funds.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

The trend lines of this election are clear: In the social media age -- a time in which authenticity appears to be the most prized commodity in a presidential candidate -- institutions like political parties and media arbiters of conventional wisdom matter far less than they once did.

After so many supposed experts have been so wrong about so many facets of the race, there's just about one certainty left: It's safe to ignore anyone who purports to having a firm grasp on what’s going to happen next.

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