It’s unknown whether Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and businessman Donald Trump will win their parties’ respective caucuses next week in Iowa, but it seems fairly likely that both will finish well above where most political pundits predicted when each first entered the race. This of late has spawned a number of articles seeking to explain how these two candidates managed to confound their doubters. Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner has a long and interesting article this morning that attempts to explain their current places in the field:
Nikki Haley was picked to respond to President Obama's State of the Union Address, and she used the opportunity to scold Donald Trump.
The South Carolina governor warned Republicans against listening to the "angriest voices" on the political scene. When moderators asked Trump about those comments in the South Carolina debate two days later, Trump mulled the charge for a moment before responding.
"I will gladly wear the mantle of anger," Trump said. "I'm angry because our country is a mess."
If you want to know why Trump gets a third of Republican support in national polls and leads in 49 states, look at his mantle of anger.
The appeal of anger, although it's not "anger," exactly, goes beyond Trump: Bernie Sanders has grumpily yelled himself into first place in Iowa and New Hampshire polls, over the supposedly inevitable Hillary Clinton. Specifically, he's done it by tying her to Washington insiders and special interests who are "rigging the game" against the regular guy.
A huge swath of the electorate is angry because they agree that the country "is a mess" and the game is rigged. They think it's self-evident, as Trump says, that "the American Dream is dead."
Carney interviews a number of these angry voters, primarily Trump supporters, to get a sense of why they’re backing the New York billionaire and what they see that is making them so angry:
Jeff Mason works six days a week. He drives a truck, delivering produce around the suburbs of Charlotte, N.C., Mason, in a thick hooded sweatshirt, holds up his meaty hands. "I got callouses on my hands, and they're nasty."
He's a Trump supporter. He tells me his work history, but you wouldn't call it a career. During the recession, he found work in the Pittsburgh area towing foreclosed cars. He was a repo man. There was plenty of foreclosing in the recession, but the work gnawed at his conscience until he quit. But "there was no jobs" in Pittsburgh, so he had to move his family down to South Carolina. "I spent six months looking for a job."
Mason makes less than $14 an hour, he tells me. "I'm tired of getting shafted and not making good money. What happened to the $20-an-hour jobs? They're gone."
You used to be able to graduate high school, get a job, work hard and things would work out in the end. You could raise a family on factory wages. That's gone. And it's gone because of policies pursued by elites who benefit from them.
Good jobs have gone to China, and immigrants are driving down wages, is the refrain in Trump country. "Close the borders. Send 'em back home," Mason said. "Let's get jobs here first."
Several other angry voters describe a similar perspective – for white, working-class males, the economy that Obama and many others tout as strong is anything but, and most candidates aren’t in a meaningful way able to connect with them:
What's the forgotten white man to do? Republicans offer up religion and cheap goods at Wal-Mart. Democrats offer up welfare. Neither of these offerings appeal much to these voters….
Marco Rubio adopted the platform of "reform conservatives," who aimed to put conservative policies at work for ordinary Americans who were struggling. Rubio offered larger child tax credits for the middle class.
Ted Cruz offered warfare against the "Washington cartel" that was enriching itself at everyone else's expense. He battled the Republican leadership (burning many Beltway bridges) and corporate welfare like the ethanol mandate (offending many Iowa mandarins) and the Export-Import Bank.
But when a populist furor is brewing, a corporate tax break for manufacturers, a family tax credit here and a policy fight there doesn't carry the weight of demagogic bombast — hence Trump.
Interestingly enough, Carney does identify one Republican candidate among the current crop with a more conventional background for a presidential campaign (i.e. having been elected to something before) who has been able to appeal to this voting bloc – former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum:
In recent years, some Republicans made efforts to bring these voters back. Rick Santorum's efforts were the most earnest.
In 2012, Santorum ran as the blue-collar conservative, and he had great success. He never had much of a chance of winning the nomination, but it was telling that he ran such a clear second place and won so many states.
After Romney lost to Obama, Santorum spoke directly to the concerns of the missing white voter. On the notion, beloved by conservatives, that a rising tide lifts all boats, Santorum argued, "If your boat has a hole in it, it's not going to rise."
In an interview with the Washington Examiner's Byron York, Santorum said, "So you have to talk about what can we do for people who have holes in their boats. And you know what? In America today, that's a lot of folks. They have all sorts of issues that they have to overcome to be successful. Whether it's family issues, whether it’s physical or mental health issues, whether it's skills issues, education issues — all of us have holes, right?"
Santorum hasn’t had much success this time around in rallying these same voters, but it does raise the question of what might have been for his candidacy if Trump hadn’t entered the race, or what might happen to it if Trump collapses early while Santorum is still in the race.
Carney’s isn’t the only piece along these lines, suggesting that both Trump’s and Sanders’ success to date at least in part stems from other candidates’ inability to connect with a segment of the population that feels left behind and even scorned economically and culturally. To cite just one example, in an editorial otherwise excoriating Trump, the editors at National Review had this to say:
Trump nevertheless offers a valuable warning for the Republican party. If responsible men irresponsibly ignore an issue as important as immigration, it will be taken up by the reckless. If they cannot explain their Beltway maneuvers — worse, if their maneuvering is indefensible — they will be rejected by their own voters. If they cannot advance a compelling working-class agenda, the legitimate anxieties and discontents of blue-collar voters will be exploited by demagogues.
The entire Carney article in the Washington Examiner is well worth the time to read. Whether this anger is widespread enough to carry Trump and possibly even Sanders to their parties’ nominations likely won’t be known for several months. But it’s clear at this point that it is a strong enough force to make at least two candidates who might otherwise be towards the bottom of the pack into serious contenders.