What does it say that none of the three leading candidates in the GOP presidential primary have ever held public office? That so many outsider candidates would be dominating either party’s presidential primary is unheard of, even this early in the campaign season. The leading candidate in the GOP field, Donald Trump, is a wealthy real estate developer and TV personality. Ben Carson, who has been consistently polling towards the top of the pack, is a retired neurosurgeon and author. Newcomer Carly Fiorina is a former business executive and failed 2010 US Senate candidate in California. The remainder of the field is made up of former and current US Senators and governors, profiles that typically tend to lead the pack and secure the nomination. This outsider surge is leading to growing concerns within the Republican establishment about an elongated primary battle and the potential of a Trump nomination that could potentially damage prospects down-ballot.
Historically, outsiders have rarely done well in the presidential nomination process. The last time a candidate without experience as an elected official won a nomination was in 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower was the nominee for the Republican Party. The only 20th-century presidential candidate with a resume that did not include government service was Wendell Willkie, the Republican’s 1940 nominee. Wilkie, a corporate lawyer, utility executive, former Democrat, and outspoken critic of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was tapped to run at the 1940 Republican Convention, an era before primaries and caucuses became the institutionalized process for choosing nominees.
There are a number of reasons why candidates who have held public office tend to dominate the field. According to Scott Falmlen, co-founder and partner at Nexus Strategies, a political and business affairs consulting firm based in Raleigh, North Carolina, “the political world is tilted towards establishment candidates, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. That’s not a guarantee of victory but it certainly helps.”
Established candidates start out with a network of funders to financially jumpstart their campaigns. They enjoy relationships with party insiders and interest groups who can help them secure critical endorsements and contributions. They have the ability to lure quality staff and consultants, often by leveraging existing relationships from past campaigns. According to Falmlen, “they have something to run on. What you’ve done in the past can oftentimes be a validator of what you say you want to do in the future.”
The 2016 cycle indicates a potential break from the historical trend. Four key factors make it easier for candidates without a record to succeed in this year’s political climate:
1. The ability of candidates to reach voters directly
The expansion of online news media outlets and social media sites has made it easier for candidates to communicate directly to voters. Candidates can evade the antiquated requirements of being blessed by the party infrastructure before obtaining critical funds and airtime. All of this contributes to the diminishing influence of political parties that has occurred over the past two election cycles as Super PACs have become increasingly powerful.
2. Not having to defend a political record in a toxic political environment
Some common campaign tactics include picking apart an opponent’s voting record, linking them with unpopular incumbent presidents, or blaming them for the conditions of their state during their time as a governor. In the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary, for instance, a candidate’s vote for the Iraq War was a serious liability.
A candidate who has never held public office has no public record to defend, allowing them to build their platform on politically expedient policies. In 2008, some argued that Barack Obama’s lack of time in the Senate was a problem for him, but that lack of a record left fewer votes for his opponents to attack. In the absence of a political record, some candidates are having mud thrown at them for their questionable business practices.
3. The GOPs anti-government message
As the libertarian and Tea Party wings of the Republican Party have grown in strength, the GOP has increasingly fostered anti-government sentiment. This opposition to governance serves as a disadvantage to candidates who have held public office. An irony in this is that many of these candidates who won their elections on a ‘Government is broken’ platform are now viewed as members of the establishment and thus part of the problem. Could the GOP have created an unsustainable platform?
What we do know is that GOP voters do not trust established politicians. According to a recent Washington Post poll, two-thirds of Iowa GOP primary voters prefer “someone outside of government who can bring a new approach to Washington” over a candidate with experience in government.
4. The GOP base is not happy
Since taking a strong majority in the House during the 2010 mid-terms and a majority in the Senate during the 2014 election, the GOP has not been able to deliver substantive results on many of the key issues they ran on, like holding down the debt ceiling, blocking Obamacare, obtaining approval for the Keystone XL Pipeline, and defunding Planned Parenthood. “There’s clearly a large segment of the Republican party who have buyer’s remorse,” says Falmlen. “Republicans, in 2014 and 2012 told voters if you give us a Republican Congress here is what we’re going to do… and none of that has happened.”
In a recent Fox News poll, 66 percent of Republican voters said the recent Republican majorities in Washington have failed to do all they could to block or reverse President Obama’s agenda. The poll also showed that 60 percent of Republican voters feel “betrayed” by politicians from their party, compared to 39 percent of Democrats who responded the same way.
The anger and rebellion within the GOP have been on full display as the ongoing saga of Speaker Boehner’s resignation continues to evolve. Using threats of revolt, the more conservative wing of the party had been pushing Boehner to take a hard stance against Democrats by using a spending bill to strip funding from Planned Parenthood. Boehner’s resignation has only led to further instability, as House Republicans are desperately seeking to find a new leader who can appease all sides of the caucus.
So, what does all this mean for the GOP primary?
According to a recent Public Policy Polling poll, outsiders Trump, Carson, and Fiorina are holding a combined 50% in a crowded field with all the remaining top candidates having held, or currently holding public office. As the field narrows, any remaining outsider candidate will have a solid base of anti-establishment support they can rely on, potentially all the way to the convention in July.
Ultimately, cash-on-hand is a huge indicator of how long a candidate can sustain their campaign. The three candidates leading the money chase are Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, followed by Carson. Bush has capitalized on his political connections and experience as a former Florida Governor to raise over $130 million between his campaign and Super PAC since last December, completely eclipsing his opponents. Cruz has raised $64.6 million. Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Super PAC have raised a combined $93.6 million. While Trump and Fiorina have not raised substantial campaign dollars, they hold considerable personal cash reserves that they can utilize to self-fund their efforts for quite a while. Their rise, however, has not been due to their fundraising prowess, but rather their appeal as anti-establishment figures and thus their ability to gain massive amounts of media coverage.
Even as candidates are whittled away, this year’s GOP presidential primary will continue to provide plenty of outsider vs. insider action for weeks or even months to come.