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The Bizarre Crop of 2016 Republican Presidential Candidates

Thanks to the eternal recirculation of the election cycle in the United States, the 2016 presidential election has already been simmering for at least eight months, with potential candidates shifting into position and struggling for an advantage. Over the last month, however, the race has kicked into high gear. On the Democratic side, former Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has emerged as a clear leader, dominating any other Democratic candidates; she’s nearly a shoo-in for the nomination as long as she didn’t fumble it, as she did in 2008 when she lost out to the nearly unknown Senator Barack Obama.

On the Republican side, however, the pack of presidential candidates is truly bizarre, resembling nothing so much as a drunk circus lurching around the ring and attempting to hold itself together. Each week seems to bring a new candidate, from the bizarre to the nonsensical, and the likely end result will split the primary vote over the early months of 2016, potentially leaving the Republicans with an extremely unviable candidate—welcome news to Democrats and some liberals, but a disaster for the GOP.

Thus far, only a handful of candidates have taken formal steps to generate campaigns. They include Carly Fiorino and Ben Carson, both of whom announced this week and represent the only female and Black candidates from the Republican side as of yet. They’re joined by Ted Cruz, Jack Fellure, Mark Everson, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and Rand Paul, some of whom are familiar faces on the presidential campaign circuit—their hopes may have been dashed in previous years, but they’re aiming for the White House again, hoping to take advantage of Democratic vulnerability as Barack Obama winds up his second term in Washington.

Others haven’t announced their runs, but are clearly likely to do so, and are showing signs of gearing up. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker are among the most notable of this group, but they’re not the only ones with large followings. Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Donald Trump have also joined the flock.

Many of these candidates are likely to drop out quickly, defeated by bigger names, escalating campaign costs, and PR mistakes. By the time the Republicans reach primary season, they’re likely looking at eight to ten candidates on the ballot, despite the best efforts of some of the unknowns currently exploring or actively pushing campaigns. As Republicans begin criss-crossing the country to drum up support, a number of trends are already starting to emerge.

One is racial diversity within the candidates, which is somewhat surprising. While the field is dominated overall by middle-aged white men, Jindal is Indian and Carson is Black, while several candidates have Latino heritage. Latino candidates in particular are clearly angling for the coveted Latino vote in the United States, a nation that is quickly approaching a majority minority demographic situation; Latinos are gaining more and more political clout, and smart candidates on both sides most account for that in their campaigns.

Republicans are caught in a complicated snarl with Latinos in the US, as this group of voters often adheres to conservative values, embracing bootstrapping, anti-abortion, and pro-religion candidates, making it a natural fit with the GOP. However, Latinos have strong feelings about immigration policy, an area in which Democrats excel and Republicans most decidedly do not. Candidates of Latino descent are clearly hoping to emerge as frontrunners by representing the softer side of the Republican party, wiping some of the tarnish away from the GOP’s brutal approach to immigration.

Many of the frontrunners are also extremely conservative. Scott Walker stands out as ferociously anti-union, for example, and the Wisconsin governor has nearly driven the state into the ground with his attacks on public employees and social benefits programmes. Rand Paul would perhaps more accurately be described as a libertarian, sharing extreme policy opinions with his father Ron—along with the rest of the pack, he favors substantial deregulation and believes that states should by and large be left to themselves, with minimal federal governance.

Candidates across the field are strongly anti-choice, which bodes ill for a nation on the tipping point of reproductive justice. A growing number of states are passing anti-choice legislation approaching the goal of eradicating not just abortion but reproductive health services as a whole, and such legislation is increasingly complicated, well-crafted, and diverse. Some states focus on TRAP laws, those specifically targeting reproductive health providers, while others add draconian limitations to abortion procedures, or humiliate and restrict minors with parental notification laws and requirements to attend abortion ‘courts’ where someone advocates for the rights of the fetus, echoing the trend towards personhood laws in conservative states.

Overall, Republicans are also playing to their base with promises to eradicate the already rather flaccid Affordable Care Act, which constitutes the gutted remains of an attempt to reform health care in the United States. They’re also promising to lower federal taxes across the board, while preserving tax benefits for wealthy individuals and corporations. Many are also pushing even more extreme cuts to social benefits, with governors in particular being able to provide evidence that they’re perfectly willing and able to exact such cuts; Huckabee, for example, has overseen extensive benefits cuts in Arkansas and clearly cannot wait to replicate them across the nation.

LGBQT rights are a more delicate subject for Republicans, who are beginning to learn their lesson when it comes to getting burned at the polls for being too conservative on the subject. While no Republican wants to be as daring as to support ENDA and other legislation designed to protect the LGBQT community or list them as a protected class, and many see supporting same-sex marriage as dangerous, others are beginning to come ‘round to civil unions and the extension of some basic civil rights to gay voters. It’s a smart move for a party historically unpopular among the LGBQT community, as Republicans are attempting to win over conservative and centrist LGBQT voters who are hyperfocused on marriage to the exclusion of all other issues. Meanwhile, Democrats will be forced to walk similarly careful lines, as they want to avoid alienating their base by opposing LGBQT rights, without offending the potential fence-sitters for whom such rights may be a deal-breaker.

Markedly, the Republican field also includes multiple candidates with backgrounds in business, rather than politics. Trump and Fiorina both come from the world of Fortune 500 companies and argue that their corporate experience uniquely positions them for success in Washington, as they’re emerging from beyond the beltway. Their arguments may appeal to angered conservatives frustrated with what they see as failures in Washington, especially with President Obama’s unexpected shift to the left of centre in the last few months.

Ultimately, Bush, Perry, Walker, and Christie are likely to lead the pack, with a mix of known faces, politics conservatives love, and strong financial and social backing—Bush in particular has the weight of the Bush dynasty behind him, and the only presidential candidate who would be more appealing to conservatives might be a zombie Ronald Reagan. The social and political mess left behind by George W. Bush could loop back around after 8 years of attempts to fix it should a Republican candidate be elected, and many seem cheerfully aware of this; Republicans would rather drive their great and vaunted nation into the ground than give in and accept that the new age of civil rights is underway, and the people of the United States, as well as the world, are no longer willing to tolerate life under a conservative White House and Congress.

Already, candidates are stockpiling millions for what is likely to be the most expensive and potentially hotly contested election in US history. More disturbingly, electronic voting machines—widely used across most of the nation except in very small communities that can’t afford to implement them—are still demonstrably highly hackable and nearly impossible to secure. The nation runs a serious risk of ending up with another Republican president it didn’t actually elect—and that might turn out to be the straw that broke the elephant’s back.