Life as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders looks pretty good right now. The former finds himself in pole position for the GOP nomination despite proudly touting a policy platform composed almost entirely of poorly Photoshopped Facebook memes. The latter is a lifelong socialist whose unapologetic support for left-of-left ideas has not, to the surprise of many, hindered his efforts to put large, worrisome dents in Hillary Clinton’s formerly sizeable lead. But while Trump and Sanders couldn’t be further apart ideologically, they share a striking similarity on the eve of the Iowa caucuses: neither of them ever thought they’d be here. Now, as they stare down a real shot at their respective party nominations with Des Moines and Nashua and Super Tuesday rapidly approaching, each candidate has to decide how they fit in to the fabric of this election – and whether, after all, they really want the job they purport to seek.
Start with Donald Trump, who is not a person whose track record indicates a desire to be President of the United States. Trump is a cartoon-character carnival barker whose resume highlights include anchoring a mediocre reality TV show, maintaining a ten-figure net worth despite multiple bankruptcies, and supplying office workers with garish, poorly made neckties wide enough to land a drone on. Yes, he has toyed with the idea of running for president before – Trump briefly polled as a nine-point leader of the GOP field in 2011 without even entering the race, and he won two state primaries as a Reform Party candidate in 2000. But although he has clearly relished the exposure that his forays into politics have provided, Trump has yet to show even the slightest bit of passion or excitement for a career in public service. His stump speech is a series of under-explained, vaguely populist non sequiturs designed to maximize his chances at starting boisterous “USA” chants, not to make his case to voters of why his policy proposals are best. He spends his time loudly convincing voters of his utter certainty that as president, he will be successful in getting his way – whatever that may be. He won’t say.
Sanders, by contrast, is a modern political marvel, a legislator who has managed to thrive for two and a half decades on Capitol Hill despite never affiliating himself with a political party. In an era when Republicans have managed to fashion the dreaded “socialist” label into an instantaneous career-killer, the eccentric Sanders embraces the term, tirelessly arguing the merits of a Nordic-style social democracy to anyone who will listen. In some ways, Bernie Sanders is a sort of Ron Paul of the left – you may not agree with his beliefs, but you cannot help admiring his staunch devotion to them.
Plainly, both men have run successful campaigns thus far. But Trump and Sanders share something more than the same incompetent hairstylist, a characteristic unrelated to their ideologies and one that probably makes Jeb Bush bury his head in a pillow to muffle the sobs that rack his body each night: neither one entered the race actually wanting to be elected president on November 8.
Take Trump first. (No, please, take him.) Trump has neither meaningful policy positions nor good ideas to share. But better than anyone else, the Donald understands that tapping into the emotions of fear, anger, and resentment can endear him to the far right like no advertising campaign ever could. Trump is a middling brand with big hair and two divorces who saw a chance to transform his hotel rooms and novelty hats into the products of choice for millions of disenchanted GOP voters. So he planned to capitalize on this dynamic: he would show up, stamp around during a debate or two, and deliver a few outrageous laugh lines – all without ever having to spend a night away from home. Then, as 2015 progressed and the serious candidates gained ground on him, he could bow out defiantly, citing feigned disgust for insular party politics and the “Washington establishment” that would never accept him. And his supporters, relishing their shared outsider status, would love him more than ever – and buy more than ever, too.
But this plan went to hell when all 189 GOP hopefuls (all numbers approximate) managed to find new, impressive ways to fail spectacularly at seizing the throne that Trump assumed he would eventually abdicate. Jeb Bush blew through $50 million (!!!) for the privilege of polling in fifth place, Marco Rubio still spends every debate looking like he’s reading cue cards that aren’t there, and Tea Party darling Ted Cruz finds himself grappling with, of all things, a birther controversy of his own. Suddenly aware of his increasingly unassailable lead, Trump responded by doubling down on his bombastic rhetoric and insane takes, practically begging someone competent and reasonable come and to take over for him. So far, everyone has failed.
Sanders arrived with a more conventional political agenda: to steer the primary to the left. By making himself a proverbial “part of the conversation,” Sanders hoped to force presumed eventual nominee Hillary Clinton to meaningfully address issues that she would ignore but for his presence. Once Hillary was on the record discussing things like Black Lives Matter and ending Too Big to Fail, he could contentedly head back to the Senate having served his purpose.
Imagine Sanders’ shock, then, when no one else bothered to show up to the party. Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren decided not to run, and Jim Webb never went further than telling a bewildered national audience just how willing he was to kill a man. And while Martin O’Malley hasn’t dropped out officially, moderators spend debates treating his presence as precious, like a very sincere second-grader proudly wearing one of his dad’s ties on a school-assigned job shadow. Bernie Sanders threw his hat into the ring hoping to be one data point among many for Democrat voters. Now, he is the only thing standing between Hillary and an unheard-of unopposed major-party presidential nomination.
Neither candidate can back out now. As devastating a blow to the Republican Party’s image as nominating Donald Trump would be, having the frontrunner just up and quit because he decides he doesn’t want the White House after all would be even worse. As for the Democrats, while a crowded field makes it difficult for a party to present a unified message, offering an unopposed candidate renders what is supposed to be a spirited debate and a selection process into a de facto coronation trussed up in ballots. Sanders has to stay in the race, or the Democratic primary becomes a unilateral imposition of a candidate that robs voters of any meaningful opportunity to choose their nominee. One option is no option at all.
Thus far, neither candidate has shown even the slightest desire to temper their rhetoric or make the kind of vague concessions to more moderate voters that are typical of previous general election hopefuls (“I believe X, but this is a difficult issue, and I understand the perspective of those who believe Y, and finding a middle ground is important FOR ALL AMERICANS”). Of the two, Sanders, a lifelong politician with an excellent reputation in the Senate and a wealth of practical experience, seems more likely to embrace his unexpected status as a serious candidate. On the other side, while Trump shows occasional signs of doing things that real candidates do, his abrupt, petulant, and silly refusal to participate in the January 28 debate seems like yet another desperate signal to any contenders who will listen that his frontrunner status remains very, very available.
But whether Trump and/or Sanders decides to make a serious push for the White House at this juncture is a separate question from whether they truly wanted that opportunity when they announced their fledgling candidacies three weeks apart in summer 2015. And it’s much too late for either man to admit otherwise. So they both press on to Iowa, unlikely contenders propelled to their enviable-by-any-other-standard positions by comically inept competition on one side and an absurdly thin field on the other – party dynamics that, in 2016, neither man could have ever imagined.
(Cue more rueful Jeb nodding.)