US Presidential Election 2016

As the race to succeed Barack Obama intensifies, David Karol takes a look at the defining issues of next year's US presidential election, the electoral process and the leading contenders.

More than a year before the 2016 presidential election, the race is well underway. We do not know whom the Democrats and Republicans will nominate or which party will win a lease on the White House. Yet the social and geographical divisions underlying the competition between the two parties that dominate American politics are already clearly defined. The divide between mostly southern and western Republican ‘Red States’ and mostly coastal Democratic ‘Blue States’ that emerged in 2000 persists, with no new issue or candidate likely to greatly disrupt it.

The Red-Blue Divide

Since 2000, 40 states and Washington D.C. have voted for the same party's Presidential candidate all four times (see Figure 1). By contrast, only 18 states voted for the same party in the four presidential elections from 1984 to 1996, and only 23 states voted for the same party from 1968 through 1980. There has not been such a stable period of two-party competition in the U.S. since the ‘Gilded Age’ in the late 19th Century, another era of polarisation and hard-fought elections.

Figure 1. Party Support by State


Much has happened since the red-blue map emerged in the 2000 Election: the 11 September attacks, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the financial crisis, the adoption of the Affordable Care Act and the movement of same-sex marriage from a fringe belief to the law of the land. Many of 2000's older voters are deceased, while most of the Millennial Generation had not reached voting age by that election. George W. Bush and Al Gore seldom make the news.

Yet the Red-Blue alignment persists. While Barack Obama became a star via a stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention about transcending the Red-Blue divide, this has not occurred during his presidency. Rather, polarisation has grown and while Obama's race plays a role in shaping attitudes toward him, Americans' disagreements about the 44th President and his policies chiefly reflect pre-existing partisan divisions. Figure 2 reveals that state-level approval ratings for President Obama in 2014 are strongly associated with Vice-President Al Gore's vote share in the 2000 election, when Obama was a minor figure in Chicago politics.

Figure 2. 2014 Obama Approval vs. Gore Vote in 2000 by state


Republicans remain a largely white party, strongest among devout Protestants and Catholics, older voters and those living in smaller towns and rural areas, especially in the South. Business interests, anti-tax activists, religious conservatives and gun rights supporters all gather, sometimes uneasily, under the Republican tent. There is important continuity in the Grand Old Party's (GOP) closeness to the business community. Yet sociologically and programmatically, today's Republicans are not the party of Eisenhower, let alone Lincoln. Rather they are a coalition that came together under Ronald Reagan, who, suitably mythologised, remains the hero of the modern Republican Party. If Republicans nominate Jeb Bush, a supporter of immigration reform whose wife is Mexican-American or Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, they will show a more welcoming face to Latino voters, but most Latinos will still vote Democratic.

Democrats, by contrast, are the party of racial, religious and sexual minorities, as well as the waning labour unions. America's growing racial diversity is reflected mainly in the Democratic Party, which increasingly draws votes from women, the young and residents of metropolitan areas. The growing numbers of un-churched and non-believing also are chiefly found in the Democratic Party. Democrats can count on states on the West Coast and in the Northeast.

The Democratic coalition also has evolved. While the party's support from unions, African-Americans and Jews dates back to the time of Franklin Roosevelt, it has lost ground among white Catholics and is anathema to its onetime base of white Southerners. Unions have greatly declined. Yet Democrats remain viable because newer constituencies including feminists, the LGBT community and the growing contingent of Latino voters have joined their ranks.

The 2016 race, like other recent campaigns, will be fought out in a handful of ‘battleground states’ such as Ohio and Florida where the balance of forces gives both parties some hope of victory. Most Americans, however, live in states that will be ignored. The winner-take-all rules that all states but Maine and Nebraska use to allocate their electoral votes give candidates no incentive to visit or advertise where the outcome is certain and only the margin of victory is unknown. All this will be true whichever candidates the parties nominate.

The Nomination Process

Presidential nominees are formally chosen at summer gatherings of thousands of delegates who are elected via primary elections and party caucuses over the first half of the election year. These convention delegates are chosen to reflect candidates' showings in their states and play a ceremonial role. This was not always true. While primaries date from the early 20th century, until 1972 most delegates were not chosen in open and competitive elections. Many effectively represented state party organisations run by elected officials or interest group leaders. Nominations were often determined at conventions, sometimes via multiple ballots. Candidates could be nominated without running in primaries.

Reforms designed to increase voter participation following the riot-plagued 1968 Democratic National Convention make this far less likely, however. While it is still possible for a convention to open without any candidate having the nomination in hand, the iterated nature of competition weeds out weaker candidates as the various states vote, making this scenario improbable. The conventions now are television extravaganzas rather than the locus of actual decision-making.

The system remains distinctive even though primaries, an American invention, have been adopted by many parties abroad in recent years. A primary is an election with many thousands or even millions of voters participating and sometimes voting on aspirants for lesser offices, along with the presidential candidates. American primaries, unlike most elsewhere, are managed by the state officials, but also shaped by parties' own rules.

American parties are also unusual in that formal membership does not exist. Requiring payment of a fee to participate in a primary election would be indignantly rejected by Americans and ruled unconstitutional on grounds that it would constitute a ‘poll tax.’ Absent formal membership no one can be expelled either.

The closest thing to membership is ‘party registration’. This procedure, which exists in only half of the states, allows voters to list a party affiliation when they register to vote. In states using this system some parties limit participation in their primaries to voters who have registered with that party. This is known as a closed primary. In other states voters who have not chosen a party are also permitted by one or both major parties to take part in primaries; these are the semi-closed, semi-open or simply open primaries. The absence of formal party membership makes possible the anomaly of Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Senator elected as an Independent, seeking the nomination of a party on whose ticket he has never run.

The national parties give state parties latitude in determining how and when to choose delegates. Most use primaries. Others employ the caucus procedure. A caucus is a smaller, more informal, party-run affair than a primary. While one may vote by mail in primaries, attendance is required at a caucus. The requirement to meet at a certain time of day for an hour or two and sometimes take a public stand, e.g. by congregating in one corner of a room designated for backers of their candidate, deters participation. Caucuses are more common in smaller and less urbanised states, with far fewer people attending than vote in primaries. The process advantages candidates with intense followings or strong organisations. The lower participation rate means that caucuses are potentially unrepresentative, even of the party.

The rule by which delegates are chosen also varies. Democrats' national rules mandate proportional representation in all states, whether a primary or caucus is used, Republican state parties employ a variety of rules, ranging from proportional representation to the ‘winner-take-all’ system.

The Contenders

The U.S. Constitution limits American presidents to two terms. As a result, for the first time since 2008 both parties have open contests for the Presidential nomination. The differences between the Democratic and Republican contests in this cycle are starker than the similarities. Both parties' lists of aspirants are mostly white male current or former governors and senators, as is typically the case. All but one is a professing Christian. In both parties some candidates have sought the Presidency previously.

There the similarities end. This year parties differ not only in the number of candidates seeking the nomination, but also in the relative standings of the contenders. The list of Republican candidates is quite long compared to other recent contests. The leading candidates are Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. There are joined however, by Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rafael ‘Ted’ Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Governors John Kasich of Ohio, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, former Governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Rick Perry of Texas, George Pataki of New York and Jim Gilmore of Virginia, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and real estate mogul cum performance artist Donald Trump

The Democratic list of contenders is far shorter, including only former Secretary of State, Senator and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee. Among Clinton's rivals, only Sanders has made any impact.

The Invisible Primary

In the year before the first votes are cast many Presidential aspirants test the waters. During this period, dubbed ‘the invisible primary’ some hopefuls, finding little enthusiasm for their campaign, never formally become candidates. Others announce presidential bids, but fold their tents before the Iowa Caucuses

This process includes private meetings, poorly attended speeches and visits to early-voting states. Fundraisers, campaign operatives and endorsers are active. They screen out weak candidates in the way that the early ballots at the old conventions once did. Those who do well enough in this phase to mount a credible campaign, have been sensitised to the policy concerns of party activists, have attracted capable campaign professionals to their staff and won backing throughout the country. Changes in media and the growth in the number of debates in the year before the election make this process more visible than it once was.

Typically, a leading candidate emerges in the invisible primary, winning broad support from party-linked interest groups, activists and elected officials. When party elites do not coalesce around one candidate during the invisible primary, it has been because a divisive issue makes consensus impossible or the leading candidates have had policy positions or aspects of their background that alienate segments of the party. Most front-runners emerging in past invisible primaries have been nominated. The support they won during this phase bolstered them when they lost primaries or caucuses.

The only recent exception, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was narrowly defeated in 2008 and is in a stronger position this time. Clinton has been prominent in national politics since 1992, when she played a controversial role in her husband's first Presidential run. No other candidate in either party this year is as well-known as Clinton, and none were prominent figures when she became First Lady a generation ago.

The former Secretary of State is far ahead of all other Democrats in endorsements, polls and fundraising totals. Her strength has deterred potential rivals including Vice-President Joe Biden. Biden sought the Presidency twice before with little success and he will be 74 when the next Presidential term begins, but he clearly would like to run. Yet Biden has been keeping his options open, but not preparing a campaign. Given the Vice-Presidency's status as a launching pad for Presidential candidates, Biden's failure to enter the race thus far (and that of the populist Senator Elizabeth

Warren of Massachusetts) indicate Clinton's perceived strength. With the exception of Martin O'Malley, Clinton's Democratic opponents are second-tier figures near the end of their careers, with little to lose and some attention to gain, by playing the role of long-shot challengers. Despite a recent surge in Iowa and New Hampshire polls by Sanders, who is challenging Clinton from the left, she remains the strong favourite.

The Republican race is messier. Jeb Bush has the most money and led most polls prior to Trump's distracting candidacy. Yet whether Bush's standing is compared to that of Hillary Clinton this year or Mitt Romney in 2011, the former Florida Governor is in a weaker position. Bush has yet to win the broad support from party elites his brother and father did and he trails Walker in the Iowa polls. His support for immigration reform and a greater federal role in education policy alienate many conservatives. Bush is no spellbinder and his family name is now a mixed blessing, even among Republicans. Walker and Rubio are less well-known than Bush, but are acceptable to key elements of the party and have won elections in states Obama carried.

Campaign Finance

Presidential campaigns have long been expensive. Yet two recent developments favour the smallest and largest donors. A reform enacted in the early 1970s required disclosure of contributions above a modest amount. Candidates who raised enough money from a sufficient number of donors in enough states became eligible for federal ‘matching funds’, provided they abided by spending limits. ‘Bundlers’ who could recruit large numbers of contributions became influential figures able to secure ambassadorships and get a hearing for their policy concerns. Recently however, leading candidates have realised they could raise more money by forgoing public financing without alienating voters.

Recent years have also seen the rise of small donors. When voters had to send cheques by mail or by telling their credit card number to a phone operator, few did so. Candidates who motivated small donors were extremists who repelled many others.

Nowadays it is easier for less sectarian candidates to raise funds online than it was via ‘direct mail’. Candidates who appealed to the younger and well-educated web-savvy demographic like Howard Dean and Barack Obama, have benefited most from this development. Still, small donors, unlike bundlers, cannot hope for personal favours, so they tend to be motivated by ideology. Their rise may further fuel polarisation.

The other important recent change in campaign finance is the rise of political action committees (the so-called Super PACs). Individuals and interest groups are limited in the amounts they can contribute to a candidate. Yet in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that individuals could contribute unlimited sums to committees that may spend unlimited amounts supporting or attacking candidates, provided that they did not ‘coordinate’ with any campaign. In practice these committees are staffed by long-time aides of the candidates and funded by allies.

One concern is that a handful of rich people, can fund an entire campaign – something that had not been true since the early 1970s. Some also argue that this practice will divide parties, since a lack of funds has led failing candidates to withdraw in the past. In 2012, billionaire backers kept Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum afloat in the later stages of their bout with Mitt Romney.

Yet poor showings will not go unnoticed by journalists looking for good stories or voters and activists trying to find the most viable candidate who best represents their views. At most Super PACs can prolong a failing candidate's demise.


The 2016 presidential campaign in the U.S. is a turning point. A major party is likely to choose a woman as its nominee for the first time in American history. For the first time, candidates who are not white and male are among the more plausible contenders in both parties. Super PACs will play a larger role than they did in 2012, making for a very expensive campaign, fuelled by mega-donors.

Yet great continuity is evident as well. The procedures for determining the parties' nominees are roughly the same ones in place since 1972. The Democratic-Republican duopoly that emerged in the mid-19th century remains entrenched. The Electoral College, which structures general election campaigns, has changed little since most states adopted ‘winner-take-all’ distribution of their electoral votes in the early 19th century. Party coalitions evolve, but the 2016 campaign will be fought largely along the now familiar red-blue lines.

Further Reading

  • Bartels, Larry1988Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice. Princeton University Press: Princeton.
  • Cohen, MartyDavid KarolHans Noel and John Zaller2008The Invisible Primary in Presidential Nominations, 1980–2004. In William G. Mayer (ed) The Making of the Presidential Candidates, 2008Lanham, M. D. Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Cohen, MartyDavid KarolHans Noel and John Zaller2008The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations before and after Reform.Chicago; University of Chicago Press.
  • Karpowitz, Christopher F. and Jeremy C. Pope2013. ‘Who Caucuses? An Experimental Approach to Institutional Design and Electoral Participation’ British Journal of Political Science. Vol. 45 No. 2 329351.
  • Polsby, Nelson W. 1983The Consequences of Party ReformNew York: Oxford University Press.