As the US presidential campaign of 2012 comes to a close, one indisputable fact is that it has been the strangest in living memory, probably since the late 19th century. As a political junkie since childhood, I’ve paid attention to many, going back to Nixon’s 1972 win for a second term. While Watergate, Lewinskygate and Chadgate given us some strange periods in presidential politics, the 2012 election has been one long, logic-bending parade of odd choices, odder personalities, and convention-defying new realities. As someone who writes carefully researched future scenarios for clients, my work is getting harder as reality catches up with near-future fiction. In short, you can’t make this stuff up.
And it doesn’t look like the political weirdness will stop here. Having gotten a taste of the new surreality, all parties involved, from the candidates to their strategists to the media who coat them with wall-to-pixel coverage, won’t want to settle for normal next time around. Here is a back-of-napkin list based on the long, strange march to the White House of 10 things that could get even weirder by the 2016 presidential race. Stock up on tinfoil now.
1. Campaigns can be run as infomercials. Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain showed us how far you can go with just a book to sell, cruises to speak on and a winning smile. For the crafty, well-packaged populist candidate of 2016, you don’t need to run a traditional campaign with 50 state organizations. Both Newt and Herman got closer than anyone thought without a standard-issue campaign. Surely someone sitting out there with a mailing list, website, crazy-looking bus and an ebook for sale has taken notice, and is already plotting a run for daylight. Expect more, not less, of these surreal cult-of-personality, direct-to-voter campaigns. That old saying, “Anyone can be president in America?” It’s frighteningly true.
2. Fact-based campaigning isn’t necessary. As Romney pollster Neil Newhouse stated in his jaw-dropping retort to reporters about his campaign’s misleading ad on Obama’s welfare policy, campaigns are no longer going to be dictated to by fact checkers. In fact, fact checkers have been co-opted as part of the media circus, and now look like every other pundit, with their awards of flaming pants and Pinnochio noses. The Rovian world, where each candidate constructs his own unique sphere of reality, (filled with an alternative universe of reproductive behaviors or non-Euclidian geometry) looks increasingly attractive to candidates who would like to escape the stifling bounds of “facts” and duke it out on a playing field of their own creation. Look for someone to deny the legitimacy of the Electoral College and produce their own Risk board instead.
3. Campaign finance “boundaries”are a fantasy. Some $6 billion was spent on campaign ads in this election, including congressional seats, according to one calculation by the Center for Responsive Politics. Of course, as The Financial Times’ US managing editor Gillian Tett points out, that’s less than Americans spend on Halloween. Why should a second-tier holiday of candy and costumes consume more money than determining the most powerful office in the world? The $6 billion was just a test, with private, often anonymous, donors just finding their feet. Without a reversal of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that opened the flood gates on campaign spending, or other restrictions passed by the beneficiaries of this funding, the sky’s the limit in 2016. Expect a $10 billion-plus campaign, with a Monster Manual’s worth of new funding entities with opaque names. Every billionaire will want his or her own vanity cause. Presidential candidates are the new sports franchises.
4. TV ads don’t have to run on TV. How many times did the media cover a controversial ad that was never “officially” aired? Campaigns and their friendly SuperPACs know they can save ad dollars for the uncontroversial ads while they issue the sharper edged ones online in a rich media version of “just kidding!” But YouTube is too wide a frontier. Expect candidate channels on Netflix, showing just unaired hit-job commercials, feature-length movies by fringe supporters masquerading as real cinema, and, heck, even a fake channel just for fake news shows.
5. More foreign interventions. It used to be an accepted norm that other world leaders don’t get involved in our domestic presidential campaigns. This year, not only did David Cameron play a role, gushing on Obama, then smacking Romney down for dissing London’s Olympic prep, but Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu got in on the action with his own September surprise. With the amount of dirt dumped on China in this campaign, expect its next leader to moderate one of the debates.
6. What global crisis? Both Obama and Romney showed that you can run an entire two-plus year campaign and never touch climate change or even graze the euro crisis. Even with a massive superstorm striking just before the election, both candidates barely mentioned its name, and neither seriously suggested what might have given it such ferocious size and power. Like a game of “Operation,” 2016 candidates will actually lose Electoral College votes if they focus on pressing issues of global and existential concern.
7. Parody news is actual news. And actual news is a parody.While this wasn’t the first year candidates have gone on the “Daily Show” or “The View,” with microtargets such as older, stay-at-home women, “superdems” and “ultracons,” non-news TV shows and niche media will become even more critical for candidate appearances. “Monday Night Football” and Reddit will not be enough for the next data-wielding campaigns. Surprise appearances on fringe internet bulletin board 4chan, guest columns in the Onion, or a cameo serving canapés in “Downton Abbey Season 7” aren’t out of the question.
8. October surprises are reaching epic scale. Hurricane Sandy was something neither candidate expected (particularly with their allergies to climate science). Seeing the impact the storm’s disruption of business as usual had on the trajectory of the race at a critical stage, some devious SuperPAC-backing billionaire will doubtless take a serious look at geoengineering chaos for October 2016. Watch out for a convention-scuttling local algae bloom or a fracking-induced microquake.
9. Microtargeting will reach creepy new levels of intimacy. Your Facebook feed has been interrupted by Michelle Obama so many times you think your kids played little league together. Mitt’s angled for gourmet cooks using Team Romney’s in-depth knowledge of supporters’ buying habits. All of that will pale in comparison to 2016’s data-driven interdictions. That guy flirting with you on the train? On your second date, you’ll find out he’s recruiting you for Santorum 2016.
10. Visualizations of election-related information will become even more absurd. In this year of the data visualization, media organizations and indie designers alike pulled out the stops to help us better understand the quantitative measures of our democracy. Except data porn made the jump from sensible depiction to ludicrous grandstanding, in some cases like a children’s book, in others like Democracy’s Rockin’ Eve with a lit-up Empire State Building, NBC’s Electoral Magic on Ice, or a bad Wes Anderson film. For 2016, look for a startup news site to actually sponsor people to dye themselves red or blue like Easter pets, as an actual life-sized flash mob voter visualization.