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Where were the top 2016 presidential candidates in 1985?

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders didn't just appear out of nowhere.


Patrick Howell O'Neill


Posted on Oct 21, 2015   Updated on May 27, 2021, 6:49 pm CDT

It’s #BackToTheFutureDay, but even Doc Brown couldn’t have predicted this year’s presidential race.

Let’s hop in the nearest four-wheeled time machine to find out what the leading 2016 candidates were doing 30 years ago when Back to the Future topped the box office, George Michael ascended the Billboard 100, and Ronald Reagan was celebrating his second-term win.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump, the leader in the Republican race, was already plenty famous in 1985. His multimillion dollar investment in the fledgling United States Football League failed spectacularly in ’85, but his real estate empire in New York City was growing quickly. 

Trump was called “New York’s most visible developer” and had already built a reputation for bombastic success and grandiose divisiveness. 

“Donald Trump, the developer, is in the newspapers almost every day for one thing or another,” a 1985 New York Times article read. “If he isn’t building a skyscraper castle or a football team, he is trying to harass some tenants out of one of his properties. “

Trump would publicly consider running for president in 1988, foreshadowing the campaign he waged in 2000 as well as today’s historic run.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner on the Democratic side, was first lady of Arkansas, where her husband, Bill, served as governor. At the time, Hillary made more money than Bill as the first female full partner of Rose Law Firm.

Clinton has never played the quiet or invisible first lady. In 1985, she promoted the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youth (HIPPY) that trained parents in helping young children learn to read and prepare for school.

While her husband was governor, Clinton was preparing to transition more deeply into the world of business. She soon joined the executive boards of two Rose Law Firm Clients, TCBY and Walmart, positions that have provoked both praise and criticism of Clinton for her role as a female pioneer but a no-show on issues like union rights.

Both the Clintons were also heavily involved in the Whitewater Development Corporation in 1985, a series of real estate investments that became a full-blown scandal years later, when the Clintons were accused of financial crimes. Although others involved were tried and convicted, the Clintons were never prosecuted.

Ben Carson

Ben Carson, the number two on the Republican side, was the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1985.

Carson was already making headlines at age 34 as a gifted surgeon and the country’s youngest head of pediatric neurosurgery, when he performed feats like “radical brain surgery,” known as hemispherectomy, after removing nearly half a 4-year-old’s brain to cure almost constant seizures that were not responding to drugs.

The 10-hour surgery was a triumph that earned him wide acclaim because hemispherectomies had fallen out of favor after hundreds of failed attempts.

Carson’s time at Johns Hopkins began with a sign of the times, he said. He was mistaken for an orderly because “orderlies were the only black hospital employees these people had ever seen before.” 

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, the second-place candidate in the Democratic race, was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1985, an office he’d first won against all odds just a few years earlier. 

Sanders earned re-election in 1985 and celebrated with a raucous crowd in February of that year.

A few months into his newly won term, Sanders declared a new holiday in Burlington: Gay Pride Day.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Oct 21, 2015, 11:29 am CDT