Every time I tune into a Republican debate or watch one of the contenders talking about their candidacy, I wonder how come a party that once stood for free speech, globalization and ideas has come to its current form where Ben Carson and Donald Trump are leading the polls.
I don't mean to say Donald Trump and Ben Carson attracting fascination of a section of voters is uniquely American. Every major western democracy has its own Trump or/and Carson -- Italy has Berlusconi, England has Nigel Farage, France has Marine Le Pen, Spain has Joseph Anglada, The Dutch have their 'Freedom Party' and our next-door neighbor has Rob Ford. The list can go on. However, the fact that 'Trump and Carson' is happening in America is unique.
In a small country with a short election cycle, it is relatively easy for a candidate on the fringe to attract votes, especially in times of crisis. American democracy is however unique in the sense that it forces each and every candidate to be very thorough and appeal to a wider base to even win their Party's nomination, let alone win the election. To win the nomination, each and every candidate has to go through numerous debates, public forums, town halls, media interviews and an extensive and invasive scrutiny of their personal life. For a candidate like Trump and Carson to not only survive this process but thrive thus far should come as a shock to the system.
I have been trying to come up with a rational explanation behind this and all I can come up with is the great political strategist Karl Rove.
Until the 2004 election, presidential campaigns used to be focused on the independents or swing voters who could be persuaded into voting for the candidate who understood issues of the day and had best ideas to resolve them. Campaigns used to dedicate 80 percent of their resources in trying to win these voters and thus candidates from both the parties campaigned on ideas and solutions to the issues of the time. Their solutions would invariably be rooted somewhere around the center of their respective ideologies rather than the extreme fringe.
In 2004 election, Karl Rove and his team came to the conclusion that about 93 percent of the voters in a general election would tend to vote along their party affiliation. Therefore to win the election, it didn't matter whether you overwhelmingly won the remaining 7 percent vote or not -- what mattered was whether more Republicans came out to vote than the Democrats. And thus, rally the base strategy that won Bush the second term moved American or at least the Republican Party from issues and ideas based politics to ideology based rhetoric centric beauty contests.
The strategy worked in 2004 and to an extent in recent House and Senate elections but it has backfired in presidential elections since 2008. Rally the base has given the grassroots party workers a taste of their power and influence -- that power and influence has progressively resulted in the extreme right-wing fringe voter base within the Republican Party becoming the most vocal and influential in the primary process.
We never saw the real John McCain in the 2008 election -- not to get away from the fact that Republican Party waited too long to put McCain on the presidential ballot. Even though McCain moved to the right of what he believed most of his life, he had to contend with a running mate in Sarah Palin. Even though Karl Rove was not running McCain's campaign, the signs of rallying the base were everywhere. Sarah Palin was tasked with the responsibility of rallying the ultra conservative base, the base that does not believe in governing but in mandating their version of cultural conservatism.
Similarly, Mitt Romney, who had been a moderate Republican most of his life and championed the precursor to Affordable Healthcare Act (Obamacare), had to move to the extreme right to win the nomination in 2012. He also chose a running mate who could appeal to the cultural conservatives to rally the base further.
Fast forward to 2016, we have Trump and Carson leading the polls in a crowded field despite multiple debates, media scrutiny and borderline insane views on immigration, taxes, social welfare and pretty much every other topic of relevance to American public.
One can hope when Republicans actually go out to vote for their nominee in March and April, they would actually see past the 'rally the base' strategy and vote for a candidate that truly represents the Republican Party and American Values.
Lesson for the Democratic Party -- do not go for rallying the base. It may win you an election or two but it would eventually drive the power away from ideas and common sense to rhetoric and insanity.