President Trump? Stranger Things Might Happen

Political, social forces make the 2016 presidential race unpredictably interesting.

The question is absurdly premature, but we can't help ourselves. Who's going to win the presidency in 2016?

"There are basically 50 lifetimes between now and then, so a lot's going to change," Democratic operative David Plouffe said Sunday, after reluctantly agreeing with This Week host Martha Raddatz that Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Chris Christie are front-runners for the party nominations.

"I predict that a year from now we're going to be talking about another candidate — some other candidate who has lit the fire in either party," said Matthew Dowd, who worked for President George W. Bush, but now is an independent voice on This Week.

"I agree with that, for a change," chuckled Democratic operative Donna Brazile.

Dowd is right. It's far too soon to speak with authority about the next presidential campaign, and there are many reasons to suspect that the 2016 race will be reshaped — if not won — by a candidate who's not yet on Washington's radar. Here are four factors to consider.

History is a guide. In June 2006, the Gallup Poll found Clinton with a wide lead over other 2008 presidential hopefuls, while Rudy Giuliani held a slight lead in the GOP race. Clinton eventually lost to then-Sen. Barack Obama, who was not even among the 10 Democratic candidates listed by Gallup in 2006. He was that far off the radar. Giuliani, of course, washed out of the GOP campaign soon after it actually began.  (That poll was taken six months deeper into the 2008 cycle than today is for the 2016 campaign.)

Insurgent campaigns flare late. Ross Perot was a cipher two years out from the 1992 campaign, and nobody in 2002 considered Howard Dean a serious candidate for the 2004 Democratic nomination. Neither man won, but they both put a scare into the establishment and had a significant impact on U.S. policy and politics beyond their campaigns.

Voters are sick of the status quo. The public's trust in government, politics, and political parties is at record lows, according to a variety of polls. A record-high 42 percent of American identify as political independents, Gallup found this month. Republican identification felt to 25 percent, the lowest Gallup has measured since it began conducting interviews by telephone 25 years ago. Democratic identification is unchanged from the last four years, at 31 percent, but that's the lowest annual average in a quarter-century.

The public's hunger for change fueled the insurgent campaigns of Perot, Dean, and Obama, and it could spur a new one. Wrenching economic transition, new technologies that empower the masses, and the lifting of limits on campaign donations could make a 2016 insurgency swift and surprisingly potent.

Brands are more fragile than ever. Businesses leaders are struggling to build and maintain their corporate reputations in a crowded, cynical, and fast-changing marketplace of ideas. "So, this is where we find ourselves: a world in which brands can be incredibly powerful, but more challenging and more expensive than ever to create and maintain, and less resilient," writes Jonathan Copulsky in Brand Resilience: Managing Risk and Recovery in a High-speed World.

The same forces conspiring against corporate brands are a threat to political reputations, a particular challenge for the likes of Clinton ("Memo to Hillary Clinton: You're the Problem") and Christie ("How Christie Can Save His Career").

Institutional blurring could lead to crossover. The Pew Research Center has documented a decades-long decline in the public's faith in U.S. institutions, including businesses, schools, churches, charities, media organizations, and, of course, politics and government. As these silos weaken, the public will be increasingly more open to people and brands that defy institutional boundaries. Bitcoin, for example, is a digital currency invading the space of traditional financial institutions.

How might this apply to politics? The barriers to entry will be lower. We're far more likely to see a presidential candidate emerge from outside the traditional political community. A provocative thought: In our celebrity-infused culture, why couldn't the next game-changing insurgent candidate — if not president — emerge from the world of sports or entertainment? Certainly, the path from a corporate suite to the Oval Office is less cluttered than usual.

President Trump? No way. The American public is too smart to let that happen. But stranger things might.

DISCLOSURE: I wrote a book in 2005 with Dowd and Democrat Doug Sosnik about leadership of political, business, and religious organizations.

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