By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director
The first presidential election in which I was old enough to vote was in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. Many of you probably remember the circumstances: Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976 (Ford became president in 1974 when Richard Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal, but then lost to Carter in the 1976 election), but lost to Reagan largely due to a struggling economy and the failure to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis.
I was a political science major in college that fall, and I decided to cast my first vote for president for the independent candidate, John Anderson. I remember thinking at the time that Carter had not distinguished himself in managing the economy or foreign affairs, and that Ronald Reagan was, well, basically an actor from Hollywood. (Turned out that skill set was pretty valuable in the White House.)
Although Anderson only received 6.6 percent of the popular vote and no Electoral College votes, and although Reagan became probably the single most influential Republican president of the 20th century, I never regretted my vote for Anderson. He seemed like a rational alternative to the other two candidates that, through my 21-year-old lens, I perceived to be too far left and too far right. (By the way, if any of you can name Anderson’s running mate without referring to Google, you win the “CREA Political Geek Award.”)
Since 1980, I have happily exercised my franchise right in each of the succeeding presidential elections. My chosen candidates won sometimes and lost sometimes (I ain’t sayin’ who), but I was usually able to make a choice with some conviction that the candidate is a good person who understands how our government works and will do what’s in the best interest of most Americans.
And then comes 2016. Let’s see. In one corner we have the nominee of the Democratic party who barely avoided criminal prosecution after an FBI investigation concluded that her handling of confidential information when she was secretary of state was “extremely careless.” In the other corner, we have the Republican nominee, a New York real estate developer who seems mostly concerned with promoting his own name and businesses. (I could go on and on about the weaknesses of both candidates but we have space limitations, folks.)
You would think that in a country of 315 million people that perhaps we could have come up with stronger candidates. On the Democratic side, the political machine seems to have simply decided that Hillary Clinton served her time (no pun intended) and it’s her turn for a run at the White House. On the Republican side, the Donald Trump phenomenon completely blew up the existing political machine and he triumphed over a covey of more experienced, traditional politicians. In some respects, the Trump phenomenon mirrors the Bernie Sanders phenomenon: Many people are dissatisfied with the current political structure and economic outcomes, and they want radical change. The end result is that we have two nominees with the highest “unfavorable” ratings of any two candidates in U.S. history.
Why are Clinton and Trump the last two standing? My theory is that no sane person would want the job. Who among us could withstand the kind of 24/7 media coverage and intense public scrutiny that goes along with being a candidate for president? Everything you ever said or done is fair game for negative advertising. We certainly need to vet the candidates, but few people can withstand the kind of hypercritical background check required by today’s political culture and news cycle.
So does this mean our system of nominating presidential candidates is broken and we ought to chuck it and start over? Maybe. But I’m more inclined to believe that 2016 is something of an anomaly and we’ll return to some semblance of “normal” in 2020. On the other hand, as technology changes the means of communication and potential voting access, we may be at the tip of the iceberg of a more dramatic political evolution.
Which still means I have to decide who to vote for. I believe John Anderson is 96 years old now. Wonder what he’s up to?