Column: Why the rebel candidates are on the rise

Presidential hopefuls and political outsiders Ben Carson and Donald Trump participate in the Republican Presidential Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on Weds. evening.

Presidential hopefuls and political outsiders Ben Carson and Donald Trump participate in the Republican Presidential Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on Weds. evening.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

It wasn’t difficult for pundits to spin instant explanations for why “outsider” candidates such as Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders have been surging in recent polls. Opinion surveys have long shown that American voters are unhappy about the state of the nation, frustrated with politics as usual and skeptical that conventional politicians can fix the problem. Lately, however, voters seem to have reached the “I can’t take it anymore” stage.

An ABC News-Washington Post poll last week found that 64% of voters think the political system is “basically dysfunctional,” and 72% think most people in politics “cannot be trusted.” Those sentiments are bipartisan; Democrats and Republicans answered roughly the same way.

Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart found the same bipartisan discontent when he interviewed voters in Colorado earlier this year. He was struck, he said, by “how much Americans hate the government and hate Congress particularly.”


Voters fear that their children will have fewer economic opportunities than their parents, Hart said, and they don’t see anyone in Washington fixing that problem. “Anger appears much closer to the surface than in the past,” he said.

Their anger isn’t irrational. Voters are reacting to the failure of both parties to deliver on their promises of better times.

In earlier election campaigns, candidates could appeal to voters by offering a new politics that would bridge bipartisan differences. Barack Obama promised a post-partisan America in 2008, but it didn’t happen. George W. Bush made a similar pitch in 2000, but he couldn’t deliver either.

Voters are sadder but wiser now. They can see that the partisan gulf in American politics is virtually impossible for any president to paper over. If Democrats and Republicans can agree on anything, it’s that we’re in a post-post-partisan phase.

Focusing on voter dissatisfaction, though, can make the rebellions happening in both parties seem more similar than they really are. When Republicans and Democrats say they hate Washington and yearn for radical change, it turns out they mean different things. Many insurgent conservatives want to throw all the bums out, on both sides. Liberals mostly just want to throw the conservatives out.

In the Washington Post poll, 58% of Republican voters said they’d prefer a true outsider as their presidential candidate, not a politician with established experience. Not surprisingly, that’s about the same percentage who said their top choices were Trump or Carson, neither of whom has served in public office.


Among Democrats, the response was the opposite: Only 24% said they wanted an outsider, and 73% said they’d prefer someone with existing political experience. That majority included most of the 63% who said Hillary Rodham Clinton or Vice President Joe Biden was their favorite.

And of course the Democrats’ “outsider” choice isn’t really an outsider at all, at least not in the Trumpian sense. Sanders may espouse a radical ideology by American standards, but he has been in Congress since 1991.

On the Democratic side, then, all the talk of revolution and insurgency is overblown. Democrats are having a primary campaign that’s actually quite traditional; just as in past years, it pits a fiery candidate from the party’s progressive wing against a more establishment figure. And Clinton has done what any establishment candidate would: She’s told voters she shares their anger and has tried to dilute Sanders’ appeal by sidling leftward on economic policy.

For Republican candidates who aren’t named Trump, Carson or Carly Fiorina, the path ahead is less clear. After years of hard-won success in public office, they must now persuade rebellious voters to overlook their resumes and see them as insurgents who can be every bit as disruptive as a President Trump would be. Jeb Bush as a rebel? That’s going to be difficult to pull off.

Twitter: @doylemcmanus


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