Are Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton inevitable? No. But the reasons aren’t necessarily what you think.
Their advantages are certainly enormous. Both can raise truly vast sums of money. Both have the backing of their respective establishments (although to be fair, that backing is imperfect in both cases).
More important by far is what they share on the ground: organizational depth. This is something the average American, busy with real life and not immersed in the world of activism (“organizing” for our leftist friends), doesn’t fully appreciate.
Our primary process is designed to give the little guy a chance: this is why we don’t have one big national primary. Iowa goes first because it’s representative of what the Beltway calls “flyover country”; it’s also light on media markets (which require big ad budgets and thus big fundraising early on) and heavy on retail — handshakes and hugs.
In Iowa, you get a pretty diverse cross section of America (on the R side this includes fiscal conservatives and libertarians who don’t like Christians, lots and lots of church-goers, people who love ethanol subsidies, you name it). It’s not New York, but it’s an interesting test, and it depends heavily on the candidate personally walking precincts, going door to door, meeting people in their homes again and again.
This is why in the last two elections Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — both of them penniless — were able to win.
A win has big consequences: it vaults you to the head of the pack, it boosts your fundraising dramatically, and when there’s an upset winner like the ones just named, it levels the playing field rather thoroughly. Many a frontrunner has died in Iowa, frequently by trying to run a big budget media campaign when they needed to be eating a hot dog with some farmers at the fair. There are only so many ads you can run in Iowa: you have to win it on the ground. Money can help, but it’s not enough.
New Hampshire is the same, but different: different people with different concerns and ideologies. What you do and say in Iowa can nuke you in New Hampshire. Moreover, Iowa has caucuses, while New Hampshire has a primary: each tests candidates in very different ways. But the person-to-person dynamic, and minimal media market, is the same. Anyone can win, and should they win both, they are probably about to win the whole thing.
From there it gets more complicated. But the priority of Iowa and New Hampshire is one of the greatest features of the American system. Like the electoral college, it keeps the moneyed interests and big city machines from rigging the game.
On a certain level, all of this hurts Jeb and Hillary. Indeed, Hillary lost Iowa in 2008, badly. An interesting, hard-working challenger could certainly upset her — or Jeb — again, greatly altering the overall race.
But this is where my point regarding organizational depth comes in. The advantage both candidates share — again, far more important than money — is time and relationships on the ground. Let me explain.
Imagine you’re a regular guy in one of these states. Maybe you’re a line worker at a plant. Maybe you’re a mechanic, or a car salesman. But you love politics. And for years now, you’ve been volunteering. You’re good enough at it, and willing enough to stick with it, that somewhere along the way you became a precinct captain: one of the people who actually organizes their neighbors and gets out the vote.
You’re not a political professional. But you’ve been around, and you know your community and it knows you. There are very few people who could know what you know, or do what you do.
If you’re old enough, you’ve done this several times before. In fact, you probably did it for George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, or even George H.W. Bush. You’ve had a lot of presidents in your living room, at least compared to the average American.
So what happens when Bill Clinton calls you — personally — to reminisce about old times? What happens when not one but two Republican presidents, 43 and 41, pick up the phone and ask you to “help me out just one more time.”
This is not a robocall. This is real. This is one, maybe two presidents of the United States laughing and joking with you about that time that the two of you did … whatever.
Jeb and Hillary will get most of the best precinct captains. They’ll get most of the other leaders too, the ones who can get you in front of the right crowds, the right donors, the whole nine yards. Not just in Iowa and New Hampshire, but especially there. And if anything may make them inevitable, it’s that. The lead you can amass by winning those two states, and by blocking anyone from upsetting you, is probably insurmountable.
But there’s another side of that coin.
Familiarity is a two-edged sword in a culture obsessed with the new. And people are wary of a dynasty: you hear that everywhere now. But that’s not the thing.
The thing is, just as both of these candidates have personal history with thousands of activists going back decades — George H.W. Bush first ran for President in ’79 and ‘80 — they also have their favorites, their tried and true. It’s hard to break out of that: you know who’s good and you know who you want and you dance with who brung ya.
But there are a lot of new people since 1980, and 1992. There are a lot of people who’d like to break in. And precious few of them are going to be able to rise in Bushville or Clintonland: all the best places are long since spoken for.
If either of these candidates aren’t inevitable, that’s why. There’s a world of people who will have to wait their turn if Bush or Clinton win. A lot of them have waited a lifetime already; others don’t want to have to wait until they too are old. And for the many old enemies of one of these camps, the thought of another ten years of hell is downright frightening.
That’s a volatile, potent brew.
Hillary’s been inevitable before. And this was a significant part of her weakness.
Dynasties are hard to maintain, even in monarchies: ask the Lancasters and Plantagenets, the Hohenzollerns and the Ming. Maybe everything’s already settled, and 2016 will be a bore.
I wouldn’t count on it.
Rod D. Martin, founder and CEO of The Martin Organization, is a technology entrepreneur, futurist, hedge fund manager, and professor. Fox Business News calls him a “tech guru”, Britain’s Guardian labeled him a “philosopher-capitalist”, and Gawker describes him as a “brilliant nonconformist.” He was a senior member of PayPal’s pre-IPO startup team and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Council for National Policy.