US Presidential Election: An armchair pundit’s view
by Naagesh Padmanaban on 18 Nov 2015 1 Comment

The 2016 US Presidential election campaign is chugging along with the fortunes of hopefuls being tossed around like a roller coaster ride. Four GOP (Republican) and two Democratic debates later, Americans are nowhere near knowing who the two nominees would be. While there is still a lot of campaigning and debating to come, the fluctuating fortunes of the hopefuls is certainly a pointer to the overall mood of the electorate.


The just concluded second Democratic debate (November 14) hosted by CBS had historically low viewership than any other primary debate this cycle. At 8.5 million viewers - almost half of the October Democratic debate viewership of little over 15 million - the prime-time Saturday night event should ring alarm bells in the Democratic camp.


It is true that the public focus was elsewhere – the tragedy in Paris certainly overshadowed the debate; but the low appeal of the Democratic debate to viewers requires deeper analysis. It probably has more to do with poor debating skills, scripted responses and the tendency to duck real issues with political correctness, than with the Paris tragedy.


The two debates have been almost predictable and dull affairs. This is in stark contrast to the GOP debates where the floor is full – eight candidates – and sparks fly. GOP candidates, when they lack substance, certainly make up with interruptions and impassioned remarks that make for excellent entertainment and enjoyable viewing.


The Democrats have only three hopefuls on the fray - Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. While the debate was held in dignity and refinement, it gave the impression of a conversation at the country club rather than a hotly contested election debate. For example, Sanders and O’Malley while refuting Clinton on many issues, made sure they did not cross the invisible line to really harm her chances. Earlier, at the first debate in October, instead of attacking her, Sanders went to the extent of publicly supporting Clinton in the email issue.


The refusal of the candidates to go after Clinton has led many to think that they are resigned to her winning the nomination and are content to just fight to be her vice presidential candidate. Many Americans know already that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee and one of the remaining two – most probably Senator Sanders of Vermont will be the running mate and Vice Presidential candidate. So the element of suspense is lacking and hence viewership at the debates has been a casualty.


The Democrats missed a great opportunity to use the Paris tragedy to their advantage.  Clinton’s responses on the Paris tragedy and Islamic terrorism in general were politically correct statements that failed to appeal to the broader anger in Americans’ minds. Obama’s lack of a firm and forceful response in Syria and by extension to Paris and terrorism is something the Republicans have fully exploited and have gained momentum.


Bernie Sanders has seen very good response to his town hall meetings and he did stir the pot.  At one time he even beat Clinton in the opinion polls. But he appears to be unable to sustain and keep his support base. Is this because he has mentally lost the battle to Clinton or succumbed to the Republican campaign to project him as a diehard socialist? 


Joe Biden surprised many by announcing his decision not to run. Biden definitely would have injected life into the Democratic narrative and swung viewership favorably. But his last minute decision not to run has only strengthened Clinton’s nomination.


But the biggest grouse against the Democrats has been the visible lack of oratorical skills of the three contestants. They conspicuously avoid taking clear and unequivocal positions on contentious issues – Keystone project, Iran deal or Islamic terrorism. Political correctness appears to have led to the melting of the grass root support base. The Democrats have lot of work to do to a provide a credible fight to stop the Republicans.


The Republican field, on the other hand, is an altogether different cup of tea. The viewership for the four GOP debates stood at 24 million (FOX), 23 million (CNN), 14.5 million (CNBC), 14 million (FOX Biz) respectively. So far, the GOP has definitely managed to capture the attention of the American voters.


Donald Trump and Ben Carson – both non-politicians and Washington ‘outsiders’ continue to dominate the top two spots. However, this may change in the coming weeks. Carson has his own set of problems to deal with – from factual inaccuracies in his biography to his alleged violent childhood. In any case, many do not think he will be the final Republican nominee to contest Clinton.


Jeb Bush’s performance has surprised many observers. A seasoned politician - from the famed Bush family and a former Governor of Florida - Bush brings a lot of administrative experience that many others lack. He is also seen as a moderate Republican, not known to take extreme right wing views. Normally one would have expected him to do lot better in the Republican primary.


But Donald Trump’s constant attack for his ‘low energy’ has impacted his popularity with the voters. However, Bush has the backing of powerful super PACs (Political Action Committee) and they are certain to continue to bank roll him. Bush has also changed his political strategy and worked hard at portraying himself as an energetic politician. Time will tell if this will help in his resurgence.


Rand Paul is the other Republican hopeful who has been grossly underestimated. He has stayed away from extreme right views and is more of centrist views. He has performed well in all the four debates but continues to suffer poor poll numbers.


The surprise candidate in the GOP could be Marco Rubio. The young Senator from Florida and erstwhile protégé of Jeb Bush has performed well at the debates. He has a natural charm and has a strong Latin American following. He has been challenged on his poor Senate attendance record as well as credit card problems. He could be a serious contender to Donald Trump. He could even settle for the Vice Presidential running mate of Donald Trump.


It is true that it is too early to call the winner in the 2016 Presidential election primaries – but the consistent trend over the last four months has shown Republicans stealing the hearts of the Americans – at least in viewership. For the moment, only one thing is clear - Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic choice.  

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