The United States is a year and a half away from an actual vote for the next US president but the field of contenders is already so crowded you need a map to navigate the faces.
Chances are that apart from Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, and Jeb Bush, a Republican hopeful who is set to announce his candidacy later this month, most people outside the United States haven’t heard of many of the others who are sprouting from the woodwork almost daily.
While the Democratic Party has just four confirmed candidates, including Clinton, the Republican Party has no less than 11 aspirants who have already announced they are running and three others, including Bush, who are expected to follow later this month.
It’s all about big bucks
For the Republicans, the two main tasks are to find big money and a small niche in the over-subscribed field and then to distinguish themselves from rivals – even if by the slightest of ideological differences. The two don’t always synchronize well.
The big money may not support the same causes that fervent voters do. Some candidates can get caught in the dead zone between the two where they neither have the millions to run a campaign nor the grassroots support.
Pressure groups are a plenty and they come with a certain ferocity of belief. Their demands of loyalty can force candidates into corners they struggle to get out of during the campaign.
Pro-choice or pro-life, pro-gun control or “freedom-loving,” extreme evangelists or moderate Christians, pro-tax or no tax, small government or more government, interventionist or isolationist – the list goes on. Winding your way through the mine-laden landscape of ideology is tough and can lead to hilarious flip-flops and mind-numbing gyrations on key issues. The Iraq War has already flummoxed Jeb Bush – did his brother George W do the right thing or commit a blunder?
Republican hopefuls, a long list
But why are so many Republicans in the fray? Mainly because after two terms of a Democratic president, every Republican feels the people would want a change. Here is a partial list of the Republicans who have already announced they want the Oval Office:
Rick Perry: a candidate who went flat in 2012, the former Texas governor comes back with hipster glasses and a rap song to advocate small government and hard immigration policies.
Lindsey Graham: a South Carolina senator who is regularly mimicked by Jon Stewart on Comedy Central for advocating the most hawkish positions in the loveliest Southern drawl. His announcement was a dark, apocalyptic speech about being at war with Islam.
Rick Santorum: a former Pennsylvania senator who failed to get the nomination in 2012 is an extreme social conservative who is running mainly to force others to take more right-wing positions.
Mike Huckabee: a former Arkansas governor, preacher and Fox News host, he is the flag bearer for evangelical Christians. He hates Beyonce and thinks the Obamas force their kids to eat too much broccoli.
Ben Carson: a pediatric neurosurgeon and the only African American in the field, he is a maverick with no political experience. He may not survive in the jungle of extremely specialized, poll-tested politics of America. He is a critic of Obamacare.
Rand Paul: a senator from Kentucky, a libertarian and a darling of the Tea Party. He wants no foreign interventions and wants America to come back home. He is riding high in the polls and could even appeal to some Democrats and the uncommitted.
Ted Cruz: a Texas senator and hardcore conservative favored by those who think Rand Paul is too soft on social issues. He often angers his own party with his extremist tactics.
Carly Fiorina: a former Hewlett-Packard CEO who was ousted after a bitter management struggle. She has no real support within the party, except the old boys don’t mind having a woman who can criticize Clinton in the other camp without inviting charges of sexism.
Jeb Bush: former Florida governor and son and brother of ex-presidents, he could be the establishment’s candidate once he officially declares on June 15. He speaks fluent Spanish, connects with the large Hispanic community and could easily rise to the top of the heap. But his albatross would be his brother’s presidency and the Iraq war.
On the Democratic Party front, the first to declare was Clinton who has the advantage of visibility, a well-financed machine, a master political strategist as husband and support of those who want to see the US elect its first woman president. Her problems: troubling donations from foreign interests to the Clinton Foundation and her handling of the Benghazi episode in Libya. And, using her own server for e-mails while working as secretary of state.
Three other Democrats have dared to enter the race against the formidable Clinton – socialist-turned-independent-turned Democrat Bernie Sanders who appeals to some of the core groups of the party such as labor unions and students. Sanders has zero to slim chance of dislodging Clinton but he will force her to moderate her positions which many Democrats see as too pro-Wall Street.
Then there is Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland, who is also to the left of Clinton but doesn’t arouse the party base, and Lincoln Chafee, governor of Rhode Island, who announced his bid with a call to adopt the metric system. No one can understand why Chafee is running.
Over the next year, the field will thin out as the long American presidential election process gets underway in earnest and candidates begin falling by the wayside because they fail to get traction or campaign money.
Important to look like a regular Joe
The season of caucuses, primaries and Super Tuesday will begin as candidates fly or bus it from state to state – depending on the generosity of their money mentors – trying to appear as “regular” guys or gals you can have a beer with.
Yes, the American president has to be someone you can have a beer with. Now that there are two woman candidates, it’s unclear whether the beer will stay beer or turn into wine.
The first major event for both parties is in February 2016 when the state of Iowa will hold its caucus – an early indication of which candidate finds favor with the party faithful.
The Midwestern state is considered a solid indicator of national sentiment even though the party delegates have almost no minorities. Be that as it may, the myth endures and everyone watches the results from Iowa to decide whom to back.
Iowa caucuses are followed by the New Hampshire primary, a small state considered to punch above its weight in the political process, to be followed by Super Tuesday in March when 12 states choose from a crowded field. And on it goes.
During the process, there will be regular calls from political pundits to tighten campaign finance laws as big donors send money through “super political action committees” or Super PACs. A couple of lonely voices will lament why America doesn’t follow the British system of imposing limits on both spending and duration of a political campaign.
Nothing would likely change except that this presidential campaign will be the most expensive ever – until the next one.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC based commentator.