There’s no such thing as a predictable political season. No one expected Lyndon Johnson to stand down from his re-election campaign in 1968, and no one foresaw that Sen. George McGovern would need two running mates in 1972. Hardly anyone expected former Gov. Jimmy Carter’s ascension in 1976, and you could have won an enormous amount of money if you had bet in June 1983 that the winner of the New Hampshire primary in February 1984 would have been Sen. Gary Hart.
So it should be no surprise that the 2016 presidential campaign already has provided several surprises. But these surprises — three in particular — are worth noting, because they help explain the road ahead and prepare us for the sorts of surprises that may be around the next bend. Here are the surprises that have shaped Campaign 2016 thus far:
• The prominence of national security. Few American elections — 1916, 1940 and 1972, and perhaps 1952, 1980 and 2004 if you want to stretch the point — have been about foreign policy. Usually our candidates emphasize domestic issues, especially the economy. There was every expectation when this campaign began months ago that 2016 would be no different.
But two events last week suggest the opposite may be true. One was the entrance into the Republican presidential race of Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a defense hawk who emphasized foreign policy in his announcement. “I have more experience with our national security than any other candidate,” he said, adding, “that includes you, Hillary.”
Also last week, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky transformed the Capitol debate on the Patriot Act into a campaign event, bringing attention to his drive to curtail electronic surveillance but also setting out his broader foreign-policy views, which his critics argue verge on the isolationist.
Republicans of a bygone age — but only a few who’ve been recently active, such as Mr. Paul’s father — were confirmed isolationists. During the Vietnam era and the years that followed, though, it was Democrats who shied away from international involvement. The phrase “entangling alliances,” with its origins in Thomas Jefferson, was constantly in the air in Democratic circles.
Now the very presence of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the presidential race assures that foreign policy will have unusual attention. She’s the first secretary of state to seek the office since Alexander Haig (and his campaign lasted about a nanosecond).
A half-dozen secretaries of state have become president — none since James Buchanan, nobody’s example of an exemplary leader — and several mounted unsuccessful campaigns, including all three members of the 19th century Great Triumvirate (Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun). In all those cases, the former secretary’s diplomatic record was an issue, and the debate over Ms. Clinton’s role at Benghazi and her position on the trans-Pacific trade pact will be hot issues.
• The Republican emphasis on economic stratification and the Clinton profile on big wealth. This phenomenon upends the political analysis of Anthony Trollope, the Victorian novelist who was a favorite of conservatives such as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and liberals such as Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith:
“Liberals think it to be for the welfare of the people and the good of the country that [economic] distances should be reduced and gradually annihilated. The Conservatives think it is to be for the good that he should maintain the great ‘distance’ or degree of difference which divides the Duke from the laborer.”
Perhaps out of conviction, perhaps out of opportunism, perhaps merely because Barack Obama, as a two-term president, can be blamed for the contemporary income distribution, Republican presidential candidates one after the other have decried the income gap and vowed to diminish it.
This has been an important theme for both Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida , who has said the Republican Party must become “the champion of the working class,” and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has said that “the people who have been hammered for the last six years are working men and women.” This is not the idiom that 1950s and 1960s Republicans employed.
For her part, Ms. Clinton, facing criticism that she is too cozy with Wall Street and too eager to rake in huge speaking fees, has battled back, asserting last month, “The dream of upward mobility that made this country a model for the world feels further and further out of reach and many Americans understandably feel frustrated, even angry.” This is a page out of the playbook of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and nomination rival Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who last week tweeted, “Income inequality kills.”
• The business of buzz in Iowa. The caucuses may be eight months away, but three candidates have used early Iowa appearances to transform their standing in the presidential race.
The first was Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, whose January exposition of his experience and his iconoclasm at the Iowa Freedom Summit catapulted him into the front ranks of the Republican campaign. Four months later he remains at the top of the Iowa Poll, released last week and showing Mr. Walker with a statistically significant 7 percentage point lead over Mr. Paul and retired surgeon Ben Carson.
Then came Carly Fiorina, the Silicon Valley executive whose Iowa appearances have combined inspirational aphorisms with colorful criticisms of Ms. Clinton. She remains near the bottom of polls in Iowa and nationally but has attracted unusual interest. One important indicator: In Iowa, her “favorability” rating, at 15 percent in January, shot up to 41 percent in last week’s poll.
Keep your eye, too, on Mr. Sanders, not likely to defeat Ms. Clinton but almost certain to be a savvy saboteur of the Clinton strategy of occupying the center left. He, along with Ms. Warren, will pound Ms. Clinton to take a stand on the Pacific trade pact, which troubles so many in the labor and environmental camps, and to be more aggressive on income distribution.
Ms. Clinton still commands a majority in the Iowa Poll and is in no apparent danger. But Mr. Sanders is now at 16 percent, double the support of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. So which of the two — Ms. Clinton or Mr. Sanders — do you suppose is on the offensive right now, and which of the two is on the defensive?