In 2016 it is possible that the major parties will nominate a candidate for president who even six months ago was widely perceived as too far outside the mainstream to be electorally viable. Both Donald Trump, a maverick businessman, and Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, owe their growing popularity to their apparent distance from the Washington establishment.
Neither may win their party's endorsement. But their rise has quickly replaced the fear that 2016 would see a battle between the Bush and Clinton political dynasties. Hillary Clinton still remains favoured to win the Democrats' nomination. It is very unlikely, however, that Bush can win the Republicans', which raises interesting questions as to where the huge sums of money pledged to his campaign might be directed.
How it all works
The choice of party candidate is theoretically decided at the party conventions, not due until July. In the past there have been battles for the nomination only resolved at the conventions, as when Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford in 1976 and Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Since then, delegates have largely turned up to party conventions prepared to endorse a candidate who has won a majority of delegates through the complex and gruelling system of state-by-state contests for party support.
For the 2016 race, that process kicks off on Monday, February 1, with the Iowa caucuses. These are literally hundreds of small meetings of party supporters across Iowa prepared to go out in the middle of winter to declare their allegiances.
Iowa will be followed by the first primary vote in New Hampshire, on February 9, then a cascade of elections, mainly in southern states. The larger states do not vote for some time. California, which could yet be crucial, holds its primaries in early June.
Americans can register party affiliation when they register to vote, so primary elections can be large-scale affairs with turnouts in the hundreds of thousands. In 2008, more than 30 million people voted in primary elections, a figure that fell dramatically in 2012 because there was no serious Democratic challenger to Barack Obama. These figures include primary votes for both federal and state legislators.
In some states it is even possible to vote for the candidate of a party for whom you are not a registered supporter. Overall, however, primaries engage the most politically committed, which is reflected in the ability of outsiders to win even if they have little chance of winning the eventual nomination.
The last two Iowa Republican caucuses were won by candidates, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who failed to win support in larger states. My hunch is that this will happen to Sanders. But it is possible that Trump, despite seeming a buffoon to many observers, will win a majority of Republican primaries.
This still does not guarantee a nomination; the party conventions include a number of superdelegates – party officials and legislators – who are not necessarily bound by primary results. Their problem is that the candidate who currently is in second place to Trump, Texas senator Ted Cruz, is equally disliked by his party establishment.
Clinton is supported both by her party establishment and by most of the African-American and Hispanic voters who make up a sizeable part of the Democratic electorate. She should benefit from the number of southern states due to vote on "Super Tuesday" (March 1), where the Clintons' popularity with black voters will be crucial.
The electoral map should favour Clinton over any of the possible Republicans in November. Presidential elections are largely decided by winning the vote in the largest states – each state being allocated votes according to population – which increasingly favours Democrats as the electorate becomes less white and less religious.
Were I betting I would still bet on Clinton to win the Democratic nomination and the election. Then again, had I been betting six months ago I could have got amazing odds on Trump winning a single primary.
Image credit: Darron Birgenheier/Flickr