And they’re off: One year to US elections, crowded field emerges

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There are 12 long months to go until Americans choose their next president, but the crowded field of candidates has a much earlier date circled on their calendars. The first votes will be cast in less than three months.

November 8, 2016. Americans will head to the polls to chose their next president, and though the date is a year away, campaigns are already in full swing.

Political outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson have so far led opinion polls among a Republican electorate that appears fed up with politics as usual, while former secretary of state and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has a clear path to the Democratic Party’s nomination.

The rise of Trump, whose candidacy many had written off as a publicity stunt before it began, has shocked political insiders, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who at one point was considered the favourite to secure the conservative party’s nomination but has steadily fallen in the polls.

Can Trump actually keep enough support to win key primaries and barrel forward, or will he ulimately fade as Republicans move back toward a more mainstream candidate?

At the same point before the 2012 elections, pizza chain executive Herman Cain was ahead in polls but quickly faded as the party began to rally behind Mitt Romney.

American University professor Allan Lichtman predicts a similar occurrence this year.

“There will be a viable insider establishment candidate who can still win this nomination just based on long-term and recent history of the Republican Party,” he said. “They tend to love these mavericks, but they never nominate them.”

Yet, others now think Trump could actually have a shot as his bombastic bluntness taps anger among working class whites about immigration and the economy.

A Politico survey of party insiders last month found they think the chances of Trump becoming the Republican nominee are rising.

“A lot can happen in the next few months, but it is time for everyone to stop whistling past the graveyard, and realize that this is real and he could be our standard-bearer,” one unnamed Republican in the survey told Politico.

The fear among the party’s leaders is that Trump would alienate the key and growing Hispanic voting bloc with his anti-immigrant rhetoric and that his brash style would damage the party’s brand.

Speculation that Trump could exit the race before voting began seemed to be contradicted by his campaign filing paperwork this week to appear on the ballot in several early states as well as the purchase of radio ads in three of the first states to vote.

Who could emerge as an alternative?

Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s stock appears to be rising in recent weeks. He stands third in averages of opinion polls by website Real Clear Politics, and may begin to peel big-money donors away from fellow Floridian Bush.

For his part, Bush in recent days has attempted to relaunch his campaign under the slogan “Jeb Can Fix It.”

He dismissed Trump’s talk of an America in decline.

“Anger that leads to resentment without delivering results will take us down a path to perdition,” he said in remarks in Florida. “I believe America’s best days are not behind us, but squarely in front of us.”

But with Bush seeming to falter, other hopefuls to be the party’s standard bearer include Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who delivers an anti-establishment message despite currently holding elected office in Washington, and former HP executive Carly Fiorina.

On the Democratic side, Clinton faces the strongest challenge from self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, but her lead has been steady at more than 20 percentage points in national polls.

Before they can appear on November’s ballot, Democrats and Republicans must first win a series of state-by-state primary elections to chose their respective nominees over the course of several months, with the first votes set for February 1 in Iowa and a week later in New Hampshire.

For months, the field that now comprises 15 Republicans and three Democrats has been crisscrossing the early voting states, holding rallies, meeting with voters at coffee shops and diners, attending local party meetings and attempting to woo every early voter. They hope the groundwork will pay off in votes, and that those votes will give them the momentum to win the party nomination.

A handful of candidates in both parties have already left the race without a single vote being cast, as they ran short on campaign funds and failed to gain support. That wave is likely to continue until just a few candidates are left, but with more than a year to go, the question is who will be the last candidate standing.

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