Election Day is some 14 months away, but for many the fatigue of the 2016 presidential election cycle has already set in.
It probably doesn’t help that a lot of the news coverage has been wall-to-wall Donald Trump, the product of celebrity mixing with politics.
Many of Trump’s opponents on the Republican side of the ticket have dismissed these early polls, reminding us that in previous cycles those early polls pointed to the likes of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry in 2012, and Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton in 2008 as possible nominees.
There is another element often overlooked in long campaigns like this. In a year from now, what issue will be weighing most heavily on Americans’ minds?
Right now, the Republican electorate for the most part seems to be occupied with the issue of immigration. The thinking is that in order to sustain a conservative GOP, the number of potential new voters allowed in from Latin America must be limited. Otherwise the country will go the route of California, where the Democratic Party has ruled Sacramento for the majority of the past 30 years.
On the Democratic side, the dominant theme is less clear. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton owns that race, but it has been muddied by issues of her email server and potential conflicts of interest involving her family’s Clinton Foundation while she was the nation’s top diplomat.
Prediction: Neither immigration nor Hillary Clinton’s potential misdeeds will be what we’re talking about a year from now as the country enters the final stretch of the 2016 presidential election cycle.
At this point in the 2008 cycle, roughly August 2007, the Bush administration was grappling with what to do about Iraq. Earlier that year, Bush had announced his “new way forward,” which was the Iraq surge.
The Republican Party had lost complete control of the Congress over the Iraq war a year before, after having had control of at least the House of Representatives for the previous dozen years. The rise of then-Sen. Barack Obama was due at least in part to his opponent, then-Sen. Clinton, having supported the invasion into Iraq while he was against it.
But a year later, when the two parties settled on Sen. John McCain and Obama as their nominees, Iraq wasn’t the biggest concern for most Americans. Nationally, on average, the cost of a gallon of gas was nearly $4. That inspired McCain running mate and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s “drill, baby, drill” rhetoric.
Then, at the end of September 2008, the collapse of the financial markets and the institution of the TARP bailout took place. Many Americans thought the second Great Depression was underway, with Bush playing the role of Herbert Hoover and Obama as the savior, playing the role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The resurrection of James Carville’s famous line “It’s the economy, stupid” became the prevailing notion of how people voted when they went to the polls on Election Day 2008.
Obama won because Americans were tired of Republican foreign policy and embraced the idea that a giant, Democratic Party-crafted government stimulus plan was what it would take to get the country back up and running at 100 percent.
At this point in the 2012 presidential election cycle, things were looking bleak for Obama and the Democratic Party. A year earlier, Democrats had been handed a devastating defeat when voters pushed back against big-government policies, in particular Obamacare, and shifted control of the House back to the GOP.
To many, it was looking like the Obama experiment had failed. Even with the killing of Osama bin Laden, polling data suggested Americans were dissatisfied with the general direction of the country. It would be just a matter of Republicans settling on the correct candidate and the mistake of the Obama years would be forgiven.
Fast-forward a year later.
The Republicans settled on former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Michigan). He became the nominee in a field where his most serious threat came from Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who had lost his seat by more than 700,000 votes to current Democratic Sen. Bob Casey six years earlier.
For better or worse, it was Romney, who had failed to win the nomination four years earlier. And it was looking less and less like a sure thing for the GOP in the contest for the White House.
The Obama campaign dodged a bullet with the “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive” meme, uttered by Vice President Joe Biden at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The suggestion was the Obama administration had lessened the threat of Islamic extremism with U.S. policies in the region. But a week after Biden uttered those words, Americans woke up to the news that Islamic militants had staged an attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the deaths of Information Officer Sean Smith, CIA operatives Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods and ambassador to Libya Christopher Stephens, the first U.S. ambassador killed in an attack since then-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Adolph Dubs was killed in 1979.
The Obama campaign managed to control narrative by avoiding any more grand statements about its foreign policy successes and making the race about Romney. Romney was depicted as the candidate who didn’t care about the “47 percent” dependent on government and as a guy who wasn’t sensitive to women’s issues.
None of that was on the radar a year earlier, but wound being huge on Election Day 2012.
Predicting what we’ll be talking about a year from now will probably prove just as difficult to predict. Will the Republicans select an immigration hawk like Donald Trump, or will it be Jeb Bush, who is much softer on that issue?
Where will the economy be in 12 months? Could it completely crash again, and would that hurt the Democratic nominee, who will have to answer for Obama policies?
The prediction game is a tough one, but if history is any indicator Election Day 2016’s issue of the day will be very different from what we’re talking about now.