What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been: the Story of the 2016 US Election

With Hillary Clinton as the presumptive successor to Barack Obama, GBP asks: what made this election so unique when the outcome has always been so predictable?


The 2016 US election will be remembered as one of the most remarkable of its kind when Americans, and even the entire Western world, look back at it in years to come.


With President Obama unable to run for a third term, the race began predictably when the likes of Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio announced their candidacies in the spring of 2015. The media and the public alike assumed that this election would tediously result in Clinton’s victory after her failure in 2008. Her announcement was so predictable, that the media often joked about her use of the phrase “If I decide to run,” prior to running.


Now that about a year has passed since the start of most of the campaigns, everything has changed. Nate Silver, whose statistical expertise garners plenty of media attention during every election season, summed up the race perfectly, tweeting: “‘With the exception of the 2016 election’ will be a common phrase in PhD dissertations in 2044”.


Indeed. This is the story of how the initially boring 2016 election became a carnival of outlandish remarks, absurd turns, and political drama.


Consider this: since July last year, the Republican Party leadership has virtually torn itself apart, a democratic socialist is giving one of America’s most familiar political faces a run for her money, and the likely Presidential candidates are two of the most disliked on record. All the way through this, there has been a constant favourite; the majority of pundits have suggested that Clinton is likely to trounce Trump in the general election.


The problem with this thought, of course, is that this election has set the gold standard for the unprecedented and unanticipated – so to suggest that the rest will be straightforward is nothing short of ignorant.


Clinton, arguably already one of the world’s most powerful women, has long been the established favourite for the Democrats (I used ‘established’ in every sense of the word, given her achievements and ties to the political and financial elite). Her campaign, though seen as lacklustre by the American media, has proved effective – shift slightly to the left in order to shake the hawkish image and win the increasing number of progressives and minorities across the nation. After Barack Obama won these votes in 2008, she has learned from her mistakes.


Yet Hillary’s journey in her race towards the White House has not necessarily gone as she would have liked. For one thing, she has plenty of skeletons in the closet: being in the public eye for 25 years, she has been surrounded by scandals relating to her husband, her record, and her decision-making. Most recently, the Republicans held an 11-hour committee to ostensibly reveal the truth behind the unfortunate events in Benghazi, when Clinton was Secretary of State in 2012. However, this was soon revealed to be a partisan attempt to bring her down. In addition to this, she has been dogged by a scandal surrounding her use of a private internet server to send and receive emails when she was Secretary of State – only adding to the existing perception that she is untrustworthy and even Nixon-esque. Despite former Republican Secretaries of State claiming to have done the same thing, Hillary’s scandal-ridden political career could not be selectively airbrushed as she would have wanted.


It is Hillary’s elitist and untrustworthy image which allowed her biggest problem to thrive: Bernie Sanders, the man who brashly told her that the American public were “sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails”. Many were surprised to see the 74 year-old Independent run as a Democrat. Many, myself included, believed his scruffy and somewhat gruff image was enough to deter voters compared to Mrs Clinton’s familiar, polished demeanour – but seemingly, some political parties are shifting leftward due to young, disenfranchised voters. Sanders, seen as overly idealistic by some, has enjoyed a scandal-free, vigorous campaign  - winning more liberal states in primaries and caucuses by encouraging a grassroots, Super-PACless political movement. Though Clinton has always been the favourite, Bernie has forced Clinton to campaign on a more left-wing, progressive front – widening the tremendous chasm that lies between them and their Republican counterparts.


For all of Clinton and Sanders’ faults, the pair remains relatively united and claim to agree “90% of the time”. Some have even speculated as to whether Clinton would nominate a Vice President to her left and campaign together on a fully progressive ticket.


On the Republican side, it’s a whole other story.


Donald Trump, the billionaire mogul-turned-celebrity personality-turned-Presidential nominee, is at the centre of this article’s argument. Nobody expected his rise; in fact, most major media outlets and experts rejected the possibility outright when he launched his campaign last summer. He was originally seen as the demagogue who led the “birther” brigade against Obama, demanding to see his birth certificate to prove he was born in America. Now, after defeating 16 Republican rivals, Trump has won over Republican voters by using tough, pro-America, no-nonsense rhetoric spoken in a bullying, fiery tone. He is abrasive, with next to no political experience: the anti-Clinton, if you will. In an arena of polished, establishment politicians (Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, even John Kasich) Trump disparaged and fought with little regard to political correctness or common decency.


His continuous victories and rise in the polls, as he fought to the top spot, forced others around him to act. Notably, Jeb Bush was one of the first to take him on – the establishment favourite and initial frontrunner (and believe it or not, presumptive nominee last summer!) called him out on his sexist and bigoted remarks during the early debates. The fall of Jeb was down to three reasons: his dull campaign, his brother’s legacy, and Trump. During the debates, Trump shockingly called him out on his brother’s record, claiming that “the twin towers went down on [George W. Bush’s] watch”. Jeb, lost for words, was crippled beyond repair: he had been cast as “low energy” and reluctantly suspended his campaign soon after.


It’s much the same story for the other Republican candidates. Carly Fiorina, a businessperson like Trump, seemed uninspiring and was drowned in a sea of misogyny, only to briefly return on Ted Cruz’s ticket (which his campaign announced with its dying breath). Marco Rubio, the handsome Latino and establishment favourite after Jeb, tried to smear Trump with personal remarks – which lead to an ultra-bizarre debate moment when Trump reassured the public that “there are no problems” in regard to certain areas of his own body. Rubio, lowering himself to Trump’s level, could not win his own state of Florida and dropped out. Trump proved his theory that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.  


Ted Cruz, in an ironic twist of fate, became the Republican favourite for a moment. When the race narrowed down to him, Kasich and Trump, leading Republicans clearly wanted to back Kasich. Unfortunately, Kasich simply didn’t have enough supporters: the only reason he was still fighting was because he was hoping for a contested convention.


Cruz, the ultra-conservative senator who is famously disliked by almost everyone in Congress, ran a campaign appealing to evangelicals which ultimately ran dry.  Having won his home state of Texas among some other more conservative states, his campaign received a slight boost as others dropped out of the race. Trump launched a full frontal assault: dubbing him “lyin’ Ted” and even insulting his wife’s looks. Clinging on for dear life, Cruz ran alongside Fiorina whilst the likes of Governor Chris Christie and neurosurgeon Ben Carson backed Trump (yes, a neurosurgeon ran for President). Cruz dropped out in early May, and Kasich soon followed, after the two men tried to make tactical efforts to steal votes from Trump in upcoming primaries.


The only way in which this election could have been more unusual is if the Republican Party had a contested convention. Normally, conventions are a formality; the presumptive nominee has usually received all the delegates they need in order to go forward by July of the election year. Had Cruz and Kasich been more effective, the GOP could have overridden Trump in an effort to win voters with less extreme views on key issues. Now Trump is going to fight Hillary in the coming months, it is anyone’s guess as to how badly he will be defeated (or, given the nature of this election, if this wildly unpredictable outsider will be defeated at all).


Trump’s rise has seen the Republican Party leadership increasingly fall apart as he receives more votes. Only now, when the entire party should be behind the prsumtive nominee, are they reluctantly rallying behind him. John McCain, the supposed “maverick” who ran against Obama in 2008, seems to begrudgingly accept the will of Republican voters. This is after Trump’s remarks early into his campaign stating that McCain was “not a war hero” despite having been captured and tortured during the Vietnam War.


But with Trump having destroyed one of the Bush family, Presidents George junior And George senior have distanced themselves from upcoming Republican events (namely, the convention). The most outspoken Republican critic of Trump is Mitt Romney, who ran in 2012; Romney dubbed him a “phoney” and a “fraud”, whilst others pointed out that he was delighted to have Trump’s endorsement when he ran for office. This put fuel on the fire; many Trump supporters could now show how the establishment will hypocritically say anything to cling on to power.


There was even talk of a third-party candidacy by billionaire and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg when Clinton began to lose momentum against Sanders, and Trump gained political notoriety. Though eventually ruling out running, this indicated unease among the political and financial establishment, which is now being seen more within the Republican Party itself.


Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, arguably the most powerful Republican at the moment, is yet to fully endorse Trump. Seen as the saviour of the Republican Party, the moderate conservative reluctantly became Speaker when John Boehner stepped down last year, having lost alongside Mitt Romney for the Vice-Presidency in 2012. Typically, Speakers would jump at the opportunity to back their party’s frontrunner: unity empowers the party. Yet many in the GOP tried to get Mr Ryan to jump in last minute and run for President, until he unequivocally ruled it out. Such a move would have been unprecedented in modern times to say the least, and the fact that it was even considered an option shows how bizarre this election is. Ryan is now coming round to the idea of backing Trump, but seems extremely hesitant.


Whilst Democrats are having a healthy discussion of their party’s future by assessing their two candidates, each Republican in Congress seems reluctant to accept Trump’s nomination. Rick Perry, who ran for the nomination in 2012 and 2016 (though one of the first to drop out), called Trump a “cancer on conservatism” but has backed him regardless. Many, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, have expressed revulsion towards Trump and Cruz: saying that choosing between them is like choosing to be poisoned or shot. The fact that he backed Cruz anyway speaks volumes for how this election is the least conventional in modern times.


As if the 2016 could not have been peculiar enough, divisions on all sides were exposed when conservative member of the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, unexpectedly died in February. It was Obama’s job to nominate his successor, which serendipitously would determine which type of laws (liberal or conservative) could be made nationwide for generations to come, due to the way the court was balanced. Republicans in Congress are yet to accept Obama’s suggested replacement – a moderate called Merrick Garland – whilst even Bernie Sanders has said it would not have been his choice.


Scalia’s death, the proverbial icing on top of an enormously messy cake, exposed the fact that the divisions in this election don’t necessarily stop at party lines; they are down to the individual candidate and the ideologies they seem to embrace. Trump and Clinton are both hugely disliked for different reasons, whilst the relatively favoured Sanders is unlikely to get sufficient delegates to continue his run through the summer. Trump seemingly forced himself to the right (many have pointed out his relatively liberal stance towards social issues in the past) spouting nationalist and nativist rhetoric by way of policy, whilst Clinton has abandoned her centrist ways and describes herself as “a progressive who can get things done”.


Seemingly, it is the growing division between liberalism and conservatism in the US which has made this election such a rollercoaster ride. It might be more correct to say that the split is progressivism versus nationalism (or “regressivism”); Clinton has had to adapt to the political climate as the voters have shifted either leftward or rightward during Obama’s tenure.


It is ironic that lyrics written by Jerry Garcia, one of America’s greatest musical talents to have Latino ancestry, sum up this election: “lately it occurs to me... what a long, strange trip it’s been”. With Trump alienating Latinos among numerous other minority groups, Hillary should be able to storm towards the White House. But the long, strange trip isn’t over yet: nobody has been confirmed as the candidate for their party and the Democratic v Republican debates are still a while away.


The question is: is this the start of a chaotic new model for US electoral politics? Trump has received millions of votes but is largely frowned upon by other nations and even his own party. He has exposed the Republican base and large swathes of the American public as nationalists at heart, who yearn to “make America great again” as if its international standing has been lost to immigration, globalisation and unity. Conversely, it is possible that Trump is a one-off; a master salesman who could manipulate the electorate in a totally unique way.


Nevertheless, as the split between progressive and regressive America widens, we can only wait and see how this will affect future elections. Perhaps, given what we have seen so far, it is unwise of me to suggest that Hillary is guaranteed a win in November. America is evidently still adapting to the increasingly interconnected world around it.