Could the next presidential election be one where both sides get the candidate who inspires the most passion among the base? It would have seemed almost ridiculous to suggest as recently as last month, but the possibility that America could be given the choice of Donald Trump versus Bernie Sanders doesn't seem so far-fetched nowadays. If these are the choices the two major parties coalesce behind, it'll certainly be one of the most unique presidential elections ever.
Of course, it's still way too early to assign any sort of probability for this particular matchup ever coming to pass. We're only in the dog days of August, and Iowa won't kick off the primary voting until next February. We've got a lot of debates to go, and a lot of campaigning remains before we get to that point. But, putting probabilities aside, it's certainly now within the realm of possibility.
The case for Trump becoming the Republican nominee is the easiest to make. He's leading in all the polls, and he has yet to be bested by any other Republican candidate, or even tarnished badly enough by his own off-the-cuff comments that the Republican base starts flocking to someone else. He does seem to be stuck right now at about 25 percent support from the Republican voters, but that is better than twice as good as any other Republican candidate is now doing. If he starts climbing up into the 30s in the polls, he may become unstoppable. With so many other candidates in the field, Trump could easily win primaries with only one-third of the voters' support. What seemed outlandish when he announced his campaign has now solidified into reality: Trump is unquestionably the frontrunner of the Republican Party.
Making the case for Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic primaries is harder, of course, because Hillary Clinton is still far and away the Democratic frontrunner. But Bernie's fortunes have been on the rise, while Clinton's have shrunk somewhat. Again, we're just talking possibilities and not probabilities, and it is entirely within the realm of the possible that Clinton gets so bogged down by scandal that Bernie starts equaling her poll numbers nationwide. If Joe Biden jumps in the race, it might actually help Sanders, since the mainstream "we want someone who's electable" Democrats would then have two clear choices -- and they might wind up splitting their votes between Clinton and Biden. If so, Sanders would have to win only a three-way race, rather than a head-to-head contest with Clinton. So there is more than one route for Sanders to actually claim the Democratic nomination.
Again, this is indeed nothing but the wildest speculation. I fully admit that. Call it a thought exercise, not a prediction of what's going to happen. I pose the question of a possible Trump-versus-Sanders matchup not because I think it's the most likely outcome, but rather because it would certainly be the most interesting one.
For once, the centrists and "serious people" in both parties would be left out in the cold. For once, the American public would get to choose between the most exciting candidates on both sides. The old argument of "Well, this candidate's interesting, but he'd never win the general election" wouldn't work, because if the non-centrist candidate won in both parties, then the centrists would be the ones eventually holding their noses and voting for a candidate they really didn't approve of. Normally, this is what happens to the fervent base of both parties, when they have to choose between what they perceive as the lesser of two evils. The tables would indeed be turned -- and if they were turned in both parties during the same election cycle then there simply wouldn't be some "safe" alternative to choose.
American presidential elections have, in recent times, been contests between a Republican who disappoints a large fraction of their own base (who then inevitably labels the candidate a "RINO," or "Republican In Name Only") and a Democrat who equally disappoints a large slice of their own base's voters (who usually gets called a "DINO"). When was the last time a true believer was nominated by either party? Republicans would answer that with "Ronald Reagan," which explains why they have all but deified him. He won big victories twice, after all. But they also remember the disastrous campaign of Barry Goldwater, which is why they normally choose someone a little less pure (who can appeal to enough independents to win). On the Democratic side, the same caution is shown as they remember the crushing defeat of George McGovern. But what if McGovern had run against Goldwater? Now that would have been an interesting contest!
The Donald Trump phenomenon, of course, isn't really about being the most pure conservative out there. The analogy's not perfect. Trump is truly a politician who defies pigeonholing. His breaking ranks with conservatives on certain issues hasn't hurt him one bit, at least so far. His fans love his brash style so much they don't really care if they don't agree with everything he says. Bernie Sanders is closer to the idea of a party purist, since on pretty much every single issue, he's been out there fighting for years for things that other Democrats have just recently gotten on board with (such as gay rights or reining in Wall Street, to give just two examples). While Trump is mostly all about style, Sanders is mostly all about substance.
The interesting thing is that both men get slapped with the "populist" label on a regular basis. Now, "populist" is one way the inside-the-Beltway crowd has of demeaning those they deem "not serious enough" (by their measure, of course). It's a term with a very fluid meaning in Washington -- it almost has to be, to encompass both a liberal Vermonter and a billionaire New Yorker. I say the term is demeaning because it is regularly used that way -- the same way the national news reporters show their barely-disguised disdain for all those people in "flyover country" who actually determine elections (see, by way of example, just about any recent coverage of the Iowa State Fair). Calling a politician a "populist" is a more-polite way for pundits to say "only the hicks and rubes are fooled by this guy."
Well, maybe (just maybe) all those hicks and rubes are so fed up with "safe" or "centrist" or "electable" choices this time around that both parties decide it's time for an actual interesting candidate. If there was no safe choice (sorry, Jeb; sorry, Hillary) for the voters, then they'd have to weigh the populism of the right (which is now almost entirely nativist and xenophobic, thanks to Trump) with the populism of the left (which Bernie Sanders would define as "Democratic socialism," of course).
The bigwigs in both parties would be horrified -- that almost goes without saying. The parties' overlords (on both sides) would have virtually no influence over either man. Trump is, well... Donald Trump. And Bernie Sanders doesn't sound like he'd be willing to "tone down" issues he's been fighting his entire life for. The party hacks and overpaid consultants wouldn't know what to do with themselves -- on either side of the aisle.
Which is really why it's so fun to speculate about. America would, for once, get two candidates who refused to put on their party's usual muzzle. Issues the candidates champion simply couldn't be ignored by the mainstream media (they way they normally do for "populist candidates"). This is already happening over on the Republican side, mostly due to Trump's oversized personality. Trump overstates the case -- Republicans talked about immigration long before he entered the ring, after all -- but he does have a point. Because Trump's campaign is centered around "building a wall" (and all the rest of it), the entire Republican field has to measure their responses from the positions Trump is staking out.
Of course it also almost goes without saying that the populist base on both sides would be delighted with such a contest. Both sides would believe -- deeply -- that the other candidate couldn't possibly win, and that their candidate was an absolute shoo-in. Both would prematurely measure the Oval Office for new drapes, in other words. Both sides would be absolutely convinced of victory: "Are you kidding me? Do you really in your wildest nightmares actually see [Sanders/Trump] getting elected president?!? Ain't gonna happen!" The word "clown" would get tossed around with abandon by both sides, as well.
The outcome of such a contest is impossible to predict, but I'd bet that whoever got beat wouldn't get beat by as big a margin as the winner's supporters predict. What's harder to predict is whether voter turnout would go up or down. I can see a scenario where all the centrists (including a large number of independents) got so disgusted by the choices offered that they all stayed home and refused to vote. Hey, welcome to the world of the true believers, where every four years the choice is to hold your nose and vote for someone who you know is going to disappoint you -- or watch the other team win. Especially with Trump as a major party nominee, a whole lot of people would just throw up their hands and say "this is ridiculous, the choice is between a socialist and a carnival barker." But I also wonder if the opposite might happen. If "the other guy" is seen as so apocalyptically catastrophic that America would be downright unlivable if he won, then a lot of centrists might vote out of sheer terror of the other guy winning. This could actually drive voter turnout to new highs. A vote cast in fear counts exactly the same as a vote cast with rampant enthusiasm, after all. And both Trump and Sanders would certainly give rise to an enormous amount of fear from their opponents.
Again, this is just a lazy thought exercise for an August afternoon. I make absolutely no claim that this is likely to happen. But it has now entered the realm of possibility, and it certainly is fun to think about. For once, the fervent base of both parties might get to pick their favorite candidate. For once, the RINOs and DINOs and the party bigwigs would be stymied. If it happened on an equal basis ("Sanders versus Bush" or "Trump versus Clinton" would be an entirely different situation), then we might get the most entertaining and interesting presidential race in a long, long time.
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