The candidates, of course, are the star players in the presidential election. They get all the attention, and they select the issues they’ll focus on and the messages they’ll convey to voters. They also determine how their campaigns will be run—though the candidate’s campaign managers, pollsters, and other advisers usually play major roles in these decisions. How they’ll go about their fundraising, how many debates they’ll participate in, how they’ll organize their social media and digital outreach strategies, whether they’ll “go negative” in their advertising, and how much information they’ll provide about their policy positions: These are all aspects of the campaign the candidate must address.
Where do these people come from—these individuals who feel themselves qualified to lead their country? More often than not, they come from other elective offices—governorships, the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives—where they have shown they are attractive to voters and where they have built a public record of decision-making and action on a variety of policy issues. To qualify for the Presidency a person must be a natural-born U.S. citizen and at least 35 years old.
Because American politics has been dominated by white men for so long, women and minority candidates for the presidency have been few and far between. Notable exceptions in the past include Democrat Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, Republican Elizabeth Dole in 2000, the Reverend Al Sharpton and Carol Mosely-Braun in 2004, and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. In 2016 we have Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republicans Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Dr. Ben Carson.
Deciding what issues to focus on—and how to do that—is a major decision for the candidates as they weigh how best to connect with American voters. To be taken seriously by the media and the public, candidates need to define in simple terms why they are running and project ideas that connect with key concerns of the electorate. Many candidates, in fact, select just one or two high-profile issues that will differentiate them from the other contenders in their party. Standing out is key in the early going, when a candidate may face ten or more possible competitors for the party’s nomination.
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Many candidates seek to differentiate themselves by making direct appeals to specific segments of the party faithful, e.g., the conservative wing or the liberal wing. However, front-running candidates in both parties rarely propose controversial goals or policies that might alienate significant portions of their party’s voters and prove a liability during the general election. The front-runners’ goal during the early going and beyond is to get the mainstream of the party behind them as consensus candidates and to demonstrate “electability,” or the ability to attract the support of the majority of American voters—Democrats, Republicans, other parties, and independents—come November.