Just days ahead of the Iowa caucus, the first state to go to the polls for the Republican and Democratic nominations, here’s a run down of the candidates who will shape the U.S. presidential election in 2016: the Big Five.

Bernie Sandersbernie big 5

Don’t count the Vermont Senator out just yet.

The momentum behind Sanders appeared to have petered out in the dying weeks of 2015, but the new year has brought a resurgence of ‘Feel the Bern’ enthusiasm in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Sanders’ message of economic populism, assailing a political system handcuffed to Wall Street, resonates with the Democratic electorate, particularly when contrasted to Hillary Clinton, commonly believed to carry water for the big banks.

For Clinton supporters, the current situation is an uncomfortable reminder of Barack Obama’s 2008 surge. Bernie doesn’t quite have the same appeal as Obama: his support among African Americans, in particular, could undermine him in the more ethnically diverse states that go to the polls in March.

Nevertheless, the Sanders’ campaign has achieved a remarkable feat and exceeded expectations. Bernie’s call for a political revolution is genuinely exciting Americans while Clinton-fatigue is sapping Hillary’s support.

Sanders’ forward march towards Super Tuesday, when over a dozen states go to the polls, faces two problematic issues. The first is gun control. Coming from Vermont, a state where gun ownership is high and popular, he is vulnerable to charges that he isn’t as strong on gun control as Hillary.

More significantly, Sanders is vulnerable on foreign policy. The Democratic Party sorely needs to articulate coherent foreign policy vision, especially as it looks likely that the Republicans will whip up fear of terrorism in 2016. Sanders’ relative weakness on national security could push voters towards Hillary in the Democratic primary.

If Sanders were to pull the ultimate upset and beat Hillary, the Republicans would attack him in the general election on this issue. For now, Bernie’s rejection of high capitalist politics is galvanising voters and raising eyebrows in Clinton’s camp.

Donald Trumptrump big 5

Trump scored a nice victory this past week: the endorsement of Sarah Palin.

Many view Palin with scepticism or amusement, but the former Governor of Alaska has a passionate core of support in conservative America.

Palin’s endorsement may just be enough to put Trump on top in Iowa, bleeding tea party support from the insurgent Ted Cruz.

If Trump wins Iowa and New Hampshire, as polls indicate, the real estate mogul will go into March with the potential to jump to an almost insurmountable lead.

At this point, Trump does not need to worry over the issues. He has created a political brand that, polarising as it is, is energising enough to the conservative base to put him in pole position. He has even bragged in Iowa that he could shoot someone and not lose support.

Personality politics at is best, or indeed worst. As long as Trump remains ‘Trumpy’ he bulldoze his way to the Republican nomination, possibly destroying any chance of Republicans winning the White House in the process.

Hillary Clintonhillary big 5

Reacting to the ‘Sanders Surge’ of January, Clinton went on the offensive in her public appearances, but this had very mixed results.

The truth is that Hillary Clinton is far more vulnerable than anyone really thought possible in the summer of 2015.

Commentators (myself included) believed that she had stifled the Bernie Sanders’ challenge last year with strong debate performances and a national attention shift towards security.

But not so. Sanders is here to stay, and will field a genuine challenge throughout 2016.

When discussing Hillary with people, particularly young liberals, there is a common issue: the ‘unlikeability’ factor.

The reasons aren’t the same, nor do they hang together in a coherent body of criticism. Nonetheless, there are a slew of reasons people dislike Hillary. Often there is a sense that Hillary comes across as entitled to the nomination, or flaky on policy issues. This is particularly damning when facing Sanders, an underdog who has rigidly stuck to his guns (metaphorically and literally) throughout his Senate career.

Last week Clinton bounced back slightly in the polls, returning to 51% against Sanders’ 38% of likely Democratic voters.

Nevertheless, Clinton dives into another primary contest where, like 2008, she is the favourite but on very unsteady ground. Should Sanders win Iowa and New Hampshire, as some polls indicate, this race could become very close.

Ted Cruzcruz big 5

Ted Cruz may have run the smartest campaign of all the Big Five.

Starting at eighth position in polls, he now sits in second place.

Avoiding combat with Trump until he had built up a strong position in Iowa, the Senator from Texas has ably navigated the chaotic Republican field to emerge as a real contender.

Despite this, Cruz faces tough odds. Trump is setting his sights on Iowa, armed with a Palin endorsement, and Republican establishment is launching attacks on Texan Senator.

The latest issue of National Review, a well regarded conservative publication, launched a series of attacks on Trump, urging voters not to elect the polarsing businessman. At the same time, some figures also called for a rejection of Cruz.

Cruz built a reputation as a hard nosed obstructionist in the Senate, earning him enemies on both sides of the aisle. Fortunately for Cruz, this record is actually an asset when canvassing grass roots conservatives who are disillusioned with D.C.

The weeks ahead will be very difficult for Cruz as he attempts to fight over the same patch of territory as Trump in the base of the party. That said, no one is counting out Ted Cruz just yet.

Marco Rubiorubio big 5

The Rubio charge hasn’t exactly taken off.

Despite being the most threatening candidates from the Democrats’ point of view, Rubio is stuck in third place among Republican polls.

Hanging at 11-12%,  he is far behind Cruz at 19% and Trump who is hovering around 35%.

At this point, even if the remaining ‘moderate’ candidates quit the campaign and endorsed Rubio he would still have a monumental task ahead of him to bring down Trumpmania, if the polls are to be believed.

After a steady build in favourability in December, Rubio’s poll numbers have stagnated. Meanwhile Cruz has stepped into second place, leaving the Republican debate dominated by the Ted Cruz-Donald Trump polarising language.

Rubio remains the best bet for the Republicans to nominate a moderate who can then bring the fight to the Democrats in the summer. Cruz and Trump have a loyal bedrock of support, but their politics alienates African Americans, hispanics, many women voters, millennials, and the GOP establishment itself.

And the rest…

It is also worth mentioning the big name Republican candidates who have somewhat been pushed to the fringe: Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie.

While it would be surprising at this point to see any of these three win the Republican nomination, they will play a role in determining who does.

Bush still commands a considerable campaign war chest, not to mention a slew of Republican endorsements. Hanging in there, Kasich has seen his meagre poll numbers show signs of life in the past few weeks. Chris Christie, for all his flaws, is a captivating personality and is noted for representing a conventionally Democratic state, New Jersey.

Any one of these three could conceivably bounce back into the competition if they perform well in one of the early states. However, the urgency to identify the anti-Trump candidate demands that this happen very soon.

Before long, Rubio, Bush, Kasich and Christie will have to decide who go toe to toe this year for the soul of the Republican Party.

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