This presidential campaign has upset the prejudices of many political analysts including armchair analysts like me. One of the prejudices that has been thrown on the scrap heap is that if you are a Republican, it is important to run as a right-wing religious nut. None of the candidates who appeal to ideology or religious fervor seem likely to be nominated. Another prejudice that has at least been called into question is that elections are won by people who can get big-money interests to spend loads of money in their behalf.
Let’s take the ideology argument first. At the beginning of the primary campaign, the Republican candidates were trying to outdo each other to run as the “real” conservative and throw in appeals to religious values with one exception. That exception, of course, was Donald Trump, whose claim to fame is that he can order things to be done, and they will be. Among Democrats, Bernie Sanders ran as a liberal, actually as a “democratic socialist,” whatever that means. Hilary Clinton ran a more centrist campaign as someone who can get things done by working with others. In both parties, the candidate who claimed to be able to get things done appears to have won. Most Americans are not ideologues. They want government to function.
Trump has done well by convincing many people—mistakenly in my belief—that he can make government function by the mere force of his personality. None of his opponents, who appealed to “conservative ideals” (I’m not sure what they are either) or religious fundamentalism came anywhere close to wining as many primary votes as Donald Trump did.
Hilary Clinton has prevailed among Democrats by also arguing that she is a practical person who can work with Congress and who is capable of governing. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, concentrated on the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us, correctly in my opinion. Unfortunately for his campaign, that is his only real campaign issue, and being right on one issue is not enough. A president has to be able to deal with a complex web of issues.
When it comes to money, Bernie Sanders is the biggest campaign spender. According to opensecrets.org, so far Bernie Sanders leads in campaign spending with $182.2 million. However, he trails in outside spending with only $604 thousand spent by third parties on his behalf. Donald Trump, on the other hand, spent only $48 million on his campaign, with third-party interests spending and addition $2.8 million on his behalf. I should point out for balance that among the surviving candidates, Hilary Clinton leads in outside spending with $76 million, strengthening Bernie Sanders’ argument that she is a friend of big-money interests.
The conclusion? If you want to win a presidential campaign, you don’t have to be the biggest spender, and bragging about being the purest conservative or the purest liberal is the kiss of death. What you need to do to win is to convince voters that you can make government work.
That upsets the one of the premises of my novel, Running for President. I had my protagonist, Jason Wilder, backed by a pair of incredibly rich brothers and to spout conservative Christian values that he did not himself believe it. Judging by this campaign, that would not be enough to get him elected or even nominated. On the other hand, I also had him make wild Trump-like promises about what he could accomplish if elected and had him insult ethnic minorities. Those qualities appear to have won Trump the Republican nomination. Will they also get him elected? I hope we have not sunk to the point that we will elect a president who hurls insults and ethnic slurs. Do those tactics work for Jason Wilder in the novel? It would be a spoiler to give that away.