Revenge of the outsiders: Why 2016 presidential race is breaking the mold

Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Bernie Sanders are all bucking their party establishments – and are having a big impact. Money, media, and the other candidates are part of the reason. 

Mark J. Terrill/AP/File
Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson (l.) Donald Trump (c.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush chat during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., on Sept. 16, 2015. Outsiders Carson and Trump have defied standard political logic by outpolling GOP establishment favorites, like Bush.

The rise of the outsiders – Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Bernie Sanders – is the story of the 2016 presidential race so far.

On the Republican side, the staying power of the top three in polls of GOP voters has defied expectations. Since the end of August, Mr. Trump, Dr. Carson, and Ms. Fiorina, none of whom has ever held political office, have consistently captured more than half the Republican electorate. Add another anti-establishment candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, and the “outsider” take approaches 60 percent.

On the Democratic side, Senator Sanders is a different kind of outsider: a career politician, but one whose unwavering social-democratic views have won over about a quarter of his party’s primary voters. (He’s not even a Democrat, though he caucuses with the party in the Senate.) Sanders’s breathtaking fundraising total for the July-through-September quarter – $26 million – sent a clear warning shot to Democratic establishment favorite Hillary Clinton, who barely beat him with $28 million.

So what does all this “outsider love” signify, and why is it happening now?

“I think it’s the anger and the disaffection, the desire for almost revolutionary change,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn.

Hyperpolarization in Washington, leaving Republicans and Democrats unable to work together on most issues, has left many Americans looking outside the existing political power centers for leadership. But frustration with Washington has been around a long time. What’s changed is the money and media landscape.

The flood of money into elections, driven by Supreme Court rulings and the ability to raise cash fast on the Internet, has diminished the role of the parties and offered a way for outsiders to mount well-funded campaigns. In addition, the new media environment, including social media, has provided powerful outlets for outsiders to communicate with voters without having the party establishment behind them.

Barack Obama, the young upstart challenger to Mrs. Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination, showed the way.

This time, on the Republican side, it’s as much the weakness of the establishment favorite – former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – as it is the strength of the outsiders that’s shaping the nomination battle.

“If Jeb Bush were stronger, I don’t think Donald Trump would be getting this much traction,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

Add to that Trump’s understanding of how modern media work, and his showman’s ability to get attention. While other candidates have to pay for ads, Trump is a master at “free media.” Cable news networks often go live to Trump when he’s doing an event – presumably because it’s good for ratings. And the billionaire’s willingness to self-fund means he doesn’t need to spend time fundraising.

Trump, of course, has declined in the polls of late – down from the 30s into the 20s. His performance in the second debate, weaker than in the first, is a likely explanation, as is the strong performance of Fiorina, whose numbers have shot up. Carson has also picked up steam, nearly tying Trump in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. And his third quarter fundraising was noteworthy: $20 million.

Of particular note is the consistency of the Trump-Carson-Fiorina vote. Even as their individual numbers in the polls have shifted, their total has remained roughly the same since the end of August: ranging from 48 percent to 55 percent in 11 major national polls, for an average of 52.4 percent.

The wild card may be the tea party-backed Senator Cruz, who has notably cozied up to Trump, burnishing his brand as an outsider. Cruz is also likely positioning himself to win over Trump voters when and if The Donald drops out.

Can an outsider win the nomination? Probably not, but given the ability of Trump, in particular, to defy expectations, some analysts aren’t willing to rule it out.

Of the three who have never held political office, “Trump would still be the likeliest,” says Zelizer. “I think we’re at a point where it’s dangerous to say, that can’t happen.”

Other pundits are more absolute.

“Friends, there is no way on God’s green earth that the Republican Party hierarchy is going to allow Donald Trump to be their nominee for president if they have enough power to stop him,” write Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley in the Crystal Ball blog. “They hope that Trump will self-destruct, but they are willing to see some bloodletting if needed.”

On Carson, the three see a renowned neurosurgeon who, as an African American, could potentially help the party woo black voters, but “whose lack of electoral experience and first-hand knowledge of many foreign and domestic issues will inevitably get him into trouble.”

The story on Fiorina’s candidacy has only just begun, as her surge only started with the Sept. 16 debate. Like Carson (and Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio), Fiorina – the only woman in the GOP field – helps the GOP diversify its image. But her controversial track record as CEO at Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005 is only now getting fresh scrutiny in the media, and it’s unclear how that will affect her candidacy.

It’s also worth noting that, unlike Trump and Carson, Fiorina isn’t a novice as a candidate. In 2010, she won the Republican nomination for the US Senate in California, then lost to incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) in the general election. And she was an adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. In that regard, she could even be considered part of the GOP establishment.

As for Sanders’s chances on the Democratic side, he’s still seen as a long shot. Clinton is polling in the low 40s, but that’s because pollsters are including Vice President Joe Biden in the mix (and he’s polling at 20 percent on average). Mr. Biden reportedly plans to decide whether to run by the second half of October. Without Biden in the race, polls show, Clinton’s lead over Sanders grows.

The last time a nonpolitician won the presidency was in 1952, with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. But he had another qualification that made him a shoo-in for the Oval Office: Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War II. He coasted to victory as a Republican over Gov. Adlai Stevenson (D) of Illinois.

The last major party presidential nominee who had never held elective or appointive public office was Wendell Willkie in 1940. Mr. Willkie was a charismatic corporate lawyer, who ran for the Republican nomination against a formidable field of “rabid isolationists,” says John Gizzi, political editor of Newsmax.

Among Willkie’s opponents in the wide-open nomination contest were Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, and former President Herbert Hoover.

An active “Draft Willkie” campaign, bankrolled by liberal Republicans and the business community, sent a surging Willkie to the Republican convention, though he still trailed Mr. Dewey in the Gallup poll. At the Republican National Convention, Willkie got young activists excited about him, creating the appearance of momentum.

“Because the major candidates would not defer to one another, he kept creeping up and finally won on the sixth ballot,” says Mr. Gizzi.

Could something like that happen in 2016?

“Possible but unlikely,” says Gizzi. “Willkie pulled it off when conventions really meant something.”

Today, conventions are highly scripted coronations. And the idea that, say, Trump could take his outsider appeal all the way to victory at the RNC next summer in Cleveland seems improbable. But in a cycle that has confounded pundits so far, some are no longer willing to rule anything out.

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