Which pols will be at the finish line?

J. Martin Rochester

By Marty Rochester

With the Triple Crown sweepstakes behind us, it’s time to handicap the next big horse racing event, which figures to be even more historic than American Pharoah’s ride: the upcoming 2016 national presidential contest to determine Barack Obama’s successor. 

The equine analogy is apt for a couple of reasons. First, the mass media are notorious for stressing the “horse race” aspect of presidential elections, typically focusing most of their coverage on who is ahead or behind in the polls rather than on the issues themselves. Second, the U.S. presidential election has become such a lengthy, grueling process that the entrants literally run for election in what has been called the permanent campaign, in contrast to, say, Britain, where the selection of the prime minister takes only a few weeks and British politicians merely stand for election. 

The race to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the ultimate endurance test, the Belmont Stakes of American politics.  

The 2016 candidates are in the process of being announced and are jockeying for position, despite the fact that the election is over a year away. The first stage of the campaign will not officially get underway until February, the starting line being the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, followed by further turf battles in other states. Whoever wins a majority of delegate votes at each party’s national nominating convention in July — the Democrats will meet in Philadelphia, the Republicans in Cleveland — will then square off in a match race the first Tuesday in November.   

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Most of the mounts are already in the gate, although it is always possible that a dark horse could emerge at the last minute. 

The Republican field is crowded, with over a dozen contestants in the pack, none of whom has yet gained traction. But many of them have intriguing storylines along with bloodlines. They include:

• Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose stable is going for an unprecedented trifecta because no first family has ever had three occupants of the White House;

• U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who, if either were to win, would be the first Hispanic president;  

• Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who, having dropped out of Marquette University, would be the first president since Harry Truman to sit in the Oval Office without graduating from college;  

• New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who would probably tip the scales more than any previous president other than William Howard Taft, who weighed more than 300 pounds; 

• U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, who would be the first bachelor elected since Grover Cleveland in 1885;

• U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who would be the first doctor in the house. 

And then there is Ben Carson, who is not only a physician but also an African-American, yet whose most unlikely feature is his mustache because no presidential candidate of either major party has run with facial hair since Thomas Dewey almost won by a whisker in 1948. 

At this point, there is only one entry from the Democratic Party – former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – unless one counts 100-to-1 long shots Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, and Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland. Although Clinton’s path to her party’s nomination seems clear, the odds would seem to be against a Clinton victory in November, at least based on the normal metrics.

Granted, four of the first six presidents in our history had been secretary of state, but nobody holding that position has reached the White House in more than 150 years. Then there is the height factor. James Madison aside – he stood at 5-feet-4– the taller candidate wins most of the time, especially since the advent of televised debates (one of the few exceptions being 6-foot-1 Barack Obama defeating 6-foot-2 Mitt Romney in 2012). Hillary is 5-feet-7, compared with 6-foot-3 Jeb. 

There is also the matter of age. Hillary is 67, two years younger than Ronald Reagan was in 1980 when he set the record for the oldest elected president, but she hardly projects an image of youthful vigor. She is not exactly a frisky colt. In fact, of course, she is not a colt at all. And therein lies the wild-card question. 

Naysayers will point out the obvious, biggest disadvantage when it comes to Hillary’s meeting the traditional litmus test for president. To borrow a GOP symbol, the elephant in the room is the gender variable. While very few fillies have ever won a Triple Crown race, at least it has happened on a rare occasion. No woman has ever won the presidency. 

Here’s my prediction: Not only does Hillary have a chance to win, but she is the favorite. Indeed, it is her race to lose. 

I say this because the Republicans are lacking a real thoroughbred, jostling each other and unable to unite behind a clearly winnable candidate. Moreover, the public tends to associate the Clintons with relatively good times – a pre-9/11 America, when our biggest concerns involved Bill’s flirtation with Monica. Most importantly, the country seems ready for a woman in the White House, not as first lady but as Madam President.  

After all, virtually every remaining barrier in American politics has fallen. We have come a long way as a country since 1960, when it was thought that a Catholic could not win the highest office in the land. Since John F. Kennedy’s victory, we have seen an Orthodox Jew (Joseph Lieberman in 2000) come within a few votes of winning the vice presidency; an African-American win the presidency twice (running against a Mormon in 2012); and a U.S. Supreme Court now without a single Protestant on the bench. So much for a WASP-dominated society!   

And, lest we forget, we have seen both major parties nominate a woman for VP, including the party accused of waging a so-called war against women.

Does sexism still exist in America? Yes, absolutely, just as there is still racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry. However, recent trends suggest that progress is being made beyond what many critics are willing to admit. My hunch is that Hillary’s gender, on balance, will prove to be a plus rather than a minus, and that voters are even prepared to overlook her lackluster performance as secretary of state. Her only real accomplishment was setting a record for frequent flier miles, having logged almost 1 million miles from Foggy Bottom to various capitals around the world, which resulted mostly in failures in Libya and other hot spots. 

During any race, circumstances can change suddenly, as when an early leader falters in the home stretch. Still, I am willing to wager that, come November 2016, the country will witness another historic finish, with Hillary Clinton doing the victory lap.  

No matter who prevails, three things are certain. First, strategy-wise, at the first turn, one competitor (Hillary) will veer far left and the other (her opponent) far right, cheered on by their rabid fan base, with both eventually moving toward the center of the track, taking middle-of-the-road positions near the end, because that is usually the best route to the wire.

The second certainty is that this will be the largest purse ever paid out, given all the cash ponied up by big-money groups betting on their guy (or gal) to win, with Jewish financiers George Soros and Sheldon Adelson among the major players. Third, it will be a sloppy course, with more mud tossed than ever.

Oh, and there probably will be no stud fees paid this time after the race. 

One last observation: When American Pharoah won the sport of kings’ greatest trophy at a racetrack in Queens, New York, this past week, little did anyone know that his Egyptian owner, Ahmed Zayat (whose father was Anwar Sadat’s physician), was a converted Orthodox Jew and that his jockey, Victor Espinoza, had visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s grave before the race asking for a special blessing. 

Perhaps some presidential candidates might benefit from also seeking that extra edge. 

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as Chairperson of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.