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u.s. politics

In this Dec. 7, 2015 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.Mic Smith/The Associated Press

Extremists lose.

In the United States, the system is so heavily stacked against candidates from the fringes – both left and right – of the political spectrum that they almost can't win.

No matter how outrageous, no matter how much attention presidential hopefuls attract in the early running, the long hard grind of the primaries and the centrist realities of a two-party system consign outliers to the dustbin of history.

Donald Trump, 69, is now basking in global name recognition and the frenzied outrage of those who fear him a fascist. But he needs far more than a devoted following among the white, right-wing evangelical – but declining – rump of the Republican Party if he hopes to beat the odds and defeat the system.

The U.S. system isn't like parliamentary democracies – like Canada's – where support from barely a third of voters can give a leader an unstoppable majority. It's not like the proportional representational system in some European countries, where extremist parties – neo-fascist and neo-communist – easily win legislative seats with only a few percentage points of support. Instead it was designed from the outset to be centrist, cumbersome and constrained by checks and balances.

Despite the fleeting emergence of popular candidates who dazzle the fringe faithful – remember, Howard Dean, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Gary Hart and Rudy Giuliani were all early "front-runners" who quickly flamed out – the U.S. system is heavily tilted to mainstream compromise candidates, the acceptable second choices of the disappointed ardent fringe who rally behind those who survive the early primaries while the no-hopers drop out.

Perhaps the most recent candidate from either party as far removed from mainstream politics as Mr. Trump, yet who nevertheless won his party's presidential nomination, was Senator George McGovern, a South Dakota Democrat, unabashed liberal and Second World War hero decorated for gallantry in combat.

Mr. Trump and the late Mr. McGovern could hardly be more different. Mr. McGovern, the son of an impoverished pastor, volunteered the day after Pearl Harbor, flew scores of combat missions, eventually earned a doctorate in history and was elected to Congress in 1956 and the Senate in 1962, only to became the first major political figure to publicly announce his opposition to the Vietnam War the following year.

Derided as a peacenik, he emerged as the Democratic Party's leading leftist and anti-war campaigner. While unlike Mr. Trump in many ways, Mr. McGovern could also deliver deliberately shocking statements. "Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave," he said in 1970. "This chamber reeks of blood."

Mr. McGovern was considered an unlikely long-shot candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1972. He won, at least partially as a result of gaffes by more establishment choices. It was doomed victory, a candidate from the edges of the party's political spectrum winning its presidential nomination.

He remained far outside the mainstream of U.S. politics of the day. The country had yet to lose a war and wasn't ready for a presidential candidate who promised an immediate ceasefire and total pullout within a year.

So – despite his personal unpopularity, the looming Watergate scandal and sagging public support for the war – voters overwhelming opted for centrist conservative Republican Richard Nixon over the fringe, liberal Mr. McGovern in the most sweeping landslide in U.S. presidential history. Mr. McGovern failed even to win his home state. Only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia backed him.

Mr. Trump is probably as far right as Mr. McGovern was left, but the perils of picking a fringe candidate apply equally to both parties.

Meanwhile, early polling, especially national polling, provides only a flawed, perhaps misleading view of the all-important ground game in the early primaries. That's especially so when the Republican field is so big, officially still 14 contenders although more realistically perhaps six or eight viable candidates.

Mr. Trump's lead in most national polls with 20 per cent-plus means that at least three out of four Republicans prefer another candidate. In Iowa, where the Feb 1. caucuses are the first, and disproportionately important date on the primary calendar, the bombastic billionaire has dropped to second place behind Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and only just ahead of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Mr. Rubio, a centrist seeking to eclipse the early Republican establishment favourite, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, is second in New Hampshire, the second date on the primary calendar, and in South Carolina, the first southern state.

National polls only two months ahead of primary season have a less-than-stellar record of predicting either the Iowa or New Hampshire winners or the eventual party nominee.

In November, 2007, Mr. Giuliani led all Republicans with 30 per cent in national polls. Then he got 3 per cent in Iowa and 8 per cent in New Hampshire and had quit within a month. Senator John McCain, the eventual Republican nominee, had only 14 per cent two months before the primaries began.

Four years later, Mr. Cain was the clear Republican leader with 26 per cent in national polls. He was out of the race before the Iowa caucuses were even held. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum had less than 2 per cent in November, 2011, but won in Iowa before quickly fading.