If the Candidates Were Characters in a ’90s Action Movie: A 2016 Election Cheat Sheet

Iowa is behind us. That’s the good news. We don’t have to hear about Iowa anymore.

The bad news is that this whole charade has nearly another year left, and there is still a lot to keep track of.

Lucky for you, I’ve put together another guide to the presidential candidates, similar to the previous two installments about science fiction movies and horror movies. Once again, we are looking at the picked-off-one-at-a-time candidates through the lens of a medium where characters are removed one-by-one: 1990s action movies.

The ’90s were a time of bloated casts that were gradually pared down until a handsome hero was the last man standing. This election, like those beloved VHS classics, has a robust cast and an inevitable ending: there will be only one winner.

So grab a cup of coffee, hunker down, and check out this longform listicle about the brilliant spectacle that is the 2016 Presidential Election.

The Already Eliminated

The primaries have just begun – placing us somewhere in the first act of the film – but we’ve already had a major chunk of characters eliminated. Let’s take a look at who is already out of the running.

Scott Walker is Richard Lineback in Twister (1996)

I’ve said previously that Walker was Kane in Alien, and I stand by that argument. It proved to be painfully, chestburstingly accurate.

But now that his fate seems inevitable, his departure in the rearview mirror, we can recognize Walker for what he was: the equivalent of the guy who gets sucked up into the sky by a tornado in the opening scene of Twister. He has become nothing more than the guy who was eliminated during the prologue.

Did he make it? Lineback isn’t even in the same timeline as the rest of the movie. Walked dropped out on September 21st of 2015, over five months before the first primary.

Martin O’Malley is Emilio Estevez in Mission Impossible (1996)


Like the first mission in the first film in the Mission Impossible franchise, the Iowa caucuses gave us an action-packed evening that resulted in a purging of several characters.

O’Malley is one of several candidates to immediately fold his cards after the Iowa caucuses. This probably says more about this particular election than it does about O’Malley, just as Estevez’s quick death during the opening mission in Mission Impossible said more about the movie he was in than it did about him.

Sure, he’s a relatively well-known name with a good enough resume. But he is ultimately just another bland white guy in a narrative that doesn’t have room for another bland white guy.

Did he make it? He dropped out on February 1st, lasting about as long as Estevez’s uncredited performance.

Mike Huckabee is Dave Chappelle in Con Air (1997)


Remember Dave Chappelle as Pinball in Con Air? He’s the guy who lights another inmate on fire and then is the first major character to die when he fails to properly reboard the hjiacked airplane.

Like Huckabee, Chappelle’s Con Air character makes an early departure, was fated to be eliminated from the beginning, and plays a role somewhere between “minor villain” and “comic relief.”

Did he make it? He ended his run on February 1st, similar to the longevity Pinball had.

Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindahl, Rick Perry, Lincoln Chafee, Lawrence Lessig, Jim Webb and George Pataki are the SEAL Team who get eliminated by Ed Harris’s rogue Marines in The Rock (1996)


These are the guys who look like they should be an elite team of heroes, but instead blunder into the plot and are immediately picked off, dramatically.

This team is already done. Like the SEAL team in The Rock, this bunch got out of the way before the real storyline even began, leaving room for the real heroes to emerge.

Did they make it? No, they were quickly dispatched to make room for the main characters.

Rand Paul is Sean Bean in Ronin (1998)


Paul is the most recent candidate to drop out, calling it quits in the aftermath of Iowa.

Sean Bean, meanwhile, is the walking spoiler. You see his face and you know “oh, this character’s not gonna make it.” It seems that having the last name “Paul” and running for president might have a similar effect. Ron Paul (Rand’s father) ran for President in 1988, 2008, and 2012, making this the fourth time that a Paul has made a pass at the presidency and come up short.

Looking for a stronger connection between Paul’s role in this election and Bean’s role in Ronin? Try this: Sean Bean is known for many things – Game of Thrones and GoldenEye, being Boromir and Richard Sharpe. Ronin is known for Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, amazing car chases, amazing cinematography and being a David Mamet script.

Ronin is not known for Sean Bean, nor is Sean Bean known for Ronin. Rand Paul and the 2016 Election will have a similar relationship when they are remembered. Paul may be remembered for standing up to the megalomaniac Donald Trump and for attempting to be a libertarian in a party that’s becoming populist, but aside from that his impact on this election will be minor at best.

Did he make it? No. And we knew he wouldn’t.

Rick Santorum is Jeff Daniels in Speed (1994)


Jeff Daniels wanted nothing more than to be taken seriously in Speed. Trouble for him was that it came out at the exact same time as Dumb & Dumber. He wanted to be a serious actor, but instead found himself known as the hilarious guy from an amazing poop joke scene. This brilliant SNL skit from the mid-90s sums up his plight well.

Santorum’s trouble is similar. He won Iowa in 2012. But no one will ever take him seriously because of his, ah, Google problem, as he puts it.

But unlike Daniels – who has ultimately embraced his goofball films and his serious roles, a la John C Reilly – Santorum seems fated to never find a balance and to always become the punchline. And based on his opinions, his policies, and his behavior, it’s hard to say that he deserves otherwise.

Did he make it? He didn’t. And he will remain a joke.

The Remaining Republicans

As mentioned above, seven Republicans have dropped out. But, somehow, that means that nine are still left.

Let’s take a look at who will remain, who will depart, and what will happen when.

Jeb (!) Bush is Steven Seagal in Executive Decision (1996)


Definitely the most name recognition and the ostensible victor from the start.

But oh, wait. Just like in Executive Decision, when Seagal dies before they even get onboard the hijacked plane, Bush is going to have an earlier exit than anticipated.

Will he make it? No, and with a surprisingly early exit, which we should expect within the next act.

Jim Gilmore is Tom Sizemore in Point Break (1991)

There are nine candidates left in the Republican race. Jim Gilmore is the ninth most significant, the ninth most interesting, and the ninth most likely to win the nomination.

Tom Sizemore’s (uncredited) role as DEA Agent Dietz is the most forgotten character in Kathryn Bigelow’s under-appreciated 1991 film. It’s unlikely that his character from Point Break is remembered by more than a handful of people today, just as Jim Gilmore’s candidacy is not on the radar of more than a few dozen voters today.

Will he make it? Who?

Carly Fiorina is Judith Hoag in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (199o)


Fiorina, like Hoag’s April O’Neil, spends most of her time at the kids’ table. Sure, she might be tough and impressive, but that doesn’t change the fact that her polls are in the sewer and she’s surrounded by mutants.

Will she make it? In a sense. She’ll be remembered as the winner of a contest against Santorum, Huckabee, and some guy named Jim Gilmore.

Ben Carson is Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)


It would make perfect sense if Ben Carson’s catchphrase was “I’m too old for this shit.”

While the rest of the candidates are campaigning hard after Iowa, he’s the guy who took a break from the campaign trail to go home, get some rest, and do laundry.

Like Glover’s homicide detective Roger Murtaugh, Carson is in a second career (Murtaugh was a lieutenant in the Army, Carson is a neurosurgeon), and it seems like he might not have the spirit for it. He frequently comes across as tired. He also seems annoyed with the rest of the cast, which in Carson’s case is the rest of this list and in Glover’s case included Mel Gibson, Chris Rock, Joe Pesci, Rene Russo and Jet Li.

Will he make it? It’s probably time to accept retirement and grandfatherhood, a la Glover at the end of the Lethal Weapon films.

John Kasich is John Cusack in Con Air (1997)


He’s the moderate in a field of extremists. The sane one. The normal guy.

He’s contributes to the plot but isn’t main character material. Both John Kasich in this election and John Cusack in Con Air are quintessential supporting characters. They make some good points, do a few cool things, make a mistake or two, and then throw their support to the hero as the hero saves the day.

Will he make it? Kinda. His exit won’t be dramatic. He’ll just endorse the hero and go quietly stand in the background.

Donald Trump is Dennis Hopper in Speed (1994)


He’s insane and unpredictable, but also sort of a genius. His plans are well-crafted but opaque, brash and frightening, full of fear and passion and manipulation.

In Speed, Hopper tells the riders of a city bus that he’s in charge now and that there will be deadly consequences if they disobey, a la Trump’s hijacking of the media and the Republican party. The bus riders panic. Some die, some shoot each other, but eventually most of them escape.

And then he isn’t done so he does the same thing with a train. A solid, three act structure of menace.

He challenges authority and the establishment, waxing philosophical and making demands.  He falls into the same category as other ’90s villains like Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege or Ed Harris in The Rock: a disgruntled older white man who feels that the system that once benefited him has started to fail him, and it’s his time to get revenge.

Perhaps Trump resembles the villains of Under Siege or The Rock even more than Speed‘s Hopper, as he has violent fans lining up behind him, ready to bring his vision into reality. He inspires hope for the disgruntled and hopeless, through his menace, but will ultimately fall thanks to his own ego and hubris.

Will he make it? No. Like the train in Speed or the boat in Under Siege – or the train in Under Siege 2 or the boat in Speed 2 – this Trump campaign will eventually burn out and fall apart.

Chris Christie is Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive (1993)


He’s cocky, charming, and likeable, with some great lines and endearing moments. But he’s ultimately not the main character. Tommy Lee Jones isn’t the central character nor the protagonist of The Fugitive: that’s Harrison Ford as the wrongfully-accused Dr. Richard Kimball.

Will he make it? As the main character? No. He’ll do what Jones’s character does in The Fugitive: realize he’s on the wrong path, and throw his weight behind the actual protagonist.

But, make note that Tommy Lee Jones did get his own sequel to The Fugitive, chasing Wesley Snipes in U.S. Marshalls in 1998. Perhaps we’ll see Christie in the sequel to this election.

Ted Cruz is John Malkovich in Con Air (1997)


He’s a smooth talker, a natural leader, and a manipulative scoundrel. Part of you is rooting for him, just because you want to see how far this thing will go and how low his followers can sink.

They both have oddly charming moments laced with menace, particularly regarding children’s things. Malkovich threatened a stuffed bunny’s life; Cruz read Green Eggs and Ham during a filibuster.

Will he make it? He might initially appear to be in complete control, but his plan will collapse and he will be forgotten.

Marco Rubio is Edward Furlong in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)


Furlong’s John Connor is young and annoying and you kinda wish he wasn’t there but wait, it turns out he’s your last hope apparently. And there’s not much you can do about it, because he has power behind him.

In John Connor’s case, he has a robot man from the future that he sent to save himself. In Rubio’s case, he’s got the Republican Establishment, a good amount of dough, and a growing list of endorsements.

He’s not the villain, or the hero, or the comic relief. He’s just kinda there. But he’s also the inevitable last man standing.

Will he make it? It certainly looks that way. Time to get used to him.

Honorable Mention: Nikki Haley is Samuel L. Jackson in Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)


She might not be running for President right now, but Haley is a very likely Republican nominee for Vice President, without the Presidential nominee having yet been chosen.

But, like Sam Jackson in the third Die Hard installment, she’s not going to be the main character, and she’s not trying to be. She’s the sidekick, the commentary, the back-up. And she’s probably going to be pretty good at it.

Will she make it? As the sidekick? Not guaranteed, but very likely yes.

The Remaining Democrats

While the GOP race is still crowded, hostile, and genre-bending, the competition for the Democratic nomination has narrowed itself to two: the unlikely Bernie and the inevitable Hillary.

Bernie Sanders is Harrison Ford in Air Force One (1997)


Harrison Ford is a pretty cool hero in Air Force One. Which, if you haven’t seen it, is basically Die Hard on a Plane and the Plane is Air Force One.

But here’s the thing: if you really think about it, Air Force One has a concerning after-story that we aren’t told. Sure, Ford might have won by defeating Gary Oldman and his terrorist friends, but then he has to go be president at the end of that movie. A guy who seems kinda crazy from the beginning is now expected to to be president.

I’m not saying he’s a bad guy. I’m not saying his ideas aren’t important. I’m not saying he didn’t contribute to this whole thing in a pretty big way. I’m just saying that Harrison Ford’s character at the end of Air Force One would’ve been a pretty crazy president.

Will he make it? It’ll be against the odds if he does. But do we want him to? Is this metaphor obvious enough?

Hillary Clinton is Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)


Hamilton’s Sarah Connor spent the last eight years imprisoned, watching from the inside, waiting for her chance to be hero again. Clinton has been trapped since Obama’s election, waiting for her chance to get out there and run.

But like Sarah Connor, Clinton is back in the race only to realize that there is more to contend with than she anticipated: new villains, a whiny kid, a controlling government, and a machine that wants to be in control (for Connor, the machine was Arnold; for Clinton, it’s Wall Street.)

Will she make it? It all seems to point to yes. But at a certain point, Sarah Connor stops being a central character and concedes the spotlight to young John Connor. The question is whether or not we’ve reached that point in the franchise.

Joe Biden is Keanu Reeves in Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)


This election is as disappointing for a Biden fan as Speed 2: Cruise Control was for a Keanu Reeves fan.

Will he make it? If you’re not picking up on the joke, it’s that Keanu Reeves isn’t in Speed 2.

The Independents

Gary Johnson (Libertarian) and Jill Stein (Green) are Moneypenny and Q in Goldeneye (1995)


Sure, they’ll be theoretically be in this election until November. But they will remain ignored and ostracized, like the good third party candidates they are.

Will they make it? They’re not going anywhere, but they’re certainly not central characters.

Michael Bloomberg is Steven Seagal in Under Siege (1992)


You might recall that Seagal spends the initial action of Under Siege locked in a freezer, unable to contribute or contend. Likewise, Bloomberg – despite having what it takes to get out there and fight these guys – is not actually in the action.

The main question for Bloomberg here is: are you going to stay in the freezer, or are you going to come out and fight?

Will he make it? Under Siege would’ve been a much less interesting film if Steven Seagal spent the whole thing locked in a ship’s freezer. But hey, maybe that’s what happens this time.

Who will be the last hero standing?

Watching an action movie from the 1990s, you know that the final credits aren’t going to roll with Tom Sizemore or John Malkovich or Dennis Hopper having saved the day. We know who it won’t be, and that’s most of the candidates at this point.

We aren’t going to see one of the B-listers or crazies as the final survivor of this whole mess. But who will it be? John Connor or Sarah Connor? Harrison Ford or Steven Seagal?

In a ’90s action movie you get to find out who wins within about two hours. Unfortunately for us, we have to wait for another ten months.

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