Each US Presidential election presents a unique set of challenges for those wishing to understand it. That being said, the current Presidential race is completely different to any that have gone before. Given this recent weekend's revelations and the second debate, it is worthwhile trying to look at the fundamentals in a race where the day-to-day news cycle is so wild.
We have two of the oldest candidates in history. On inauguration day if Donald Trump, at 70 years, old, is elected he will be the oldest President to take office in history. If it is Hillary Clinton, she will be the second oldest by only a few hundred days. This is a far cry from the three most recent Presidents, who were 46, 55 and 47 on their first day in office. Also compare this to the 1960 election where Kennedy and Nixon were both in their 40s and either would have been the youngest elected first term President.
Both candidates have been around for a long time in the American consciousness. Hillary first became known a quarter of a century ago as the faithful wife to a long-shot Presidential candidate in 1991. Trump first became known to a wide audience in 1983 with the completion of Trump Tower in New York. Since then he has stayed in the news through his work and involvement in real estate, casinos, sports, beauty contests and reality shows.
It has been argued, by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton amongst others, that Hillary is the most qualified person to have ever run for President. I think George Washington and other founding fathers, and more recently Richard Nixon and Herbert Hoover might have at least as good a claim, but there is no doubt Hillary has a powerful resume as a candidate. Former First Lady, US Senator and Secretary of State gives her a unique selling point in terms of ability and understanding of what it takes to be an effective President.
This contrasts sharply with Donald Trump who has never run for elected office or been appointed to an office of government. The maverick businessman is a complete aberration in American history. We have seen former Governors, Vice Presidents, Congressmen and Senators elected as President. The only other main area is the military with a number of former Generals becoming President, first with George Washington and most recently with Dwight Eisenhower. Donald Trump is unusual in many ways, but he is a complete break with the past given his background.
Trump makes a virtue of being an anti-candidate who does not follow the rules, care about policy, and believes a trigger happy approach to world affairs is a plus.
Since the Second World War this is only the third election where there is no sitting President or Vice President as the candidate. That means that neither candidate has an immediate record to defend and this is not in some form a "referendum on the incumbent." That is mitigated somewhat by the fact that Hillary served as Obama's Secretary of State and has his full support as a candidate.
One thing is overlooked with everything else going on. It is often hard for us to really grasp that there has never been a woman President or Vice President in US history. There have been two female Vice Presidential candidates, Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, who were both the bottom half of tickets that lost badly. There have been three female Secretary of States, including Hillary and one Speaker of the House. However, Hillary Clinton is the first ever female main party candidate. For Britons who have had a female head-of state for over sixty years and are on our second female Prime Minister, this isn't that easy to comprehend.
It is worth noting that both candidates are the most unpopular in polling history, although Trump is in a considerably worse position. So how did we come to this? It is easy to liken Trump's support to the British vote for Brexit, people are angry and don't like or respect the political class. The Republicans rejected the most experienced field in history in their primaries with 16 former Governors, Senators and other worthies rejected for Trump. The Democrats opted for a very shaky coronation with no major candidate challenging Hillary, although Bernie Sanders, who wasn't even a member of the party until recently, gave her a big scare. Both parties are polarizing, as is the American public as a whole. Gridlock in Washington is a function of an America unsure of what it wants and when it does, it comes up with completely different answers.
The next four weeks can be expected to produce more twists, turns and most likely outrages. The process can be described as horrific, but like a horror film or a bad soap-opera it is hard to avert your eyes and I feel we will be transfixed until the end.
Mark Malcomson is Principal and CEO of City Lit, Europe's biggest adult education college. Mark teaches American politics and starts a new course on the US elections on Thursday 20th October until Thursday 24th November.Suggest a correction