[Updated 9 a.m. Monday] At Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton faced far more than a resurgent Bernie Sanders. She faced mounting evidence of an open political rebellion among white Americans.
The dynamic has already been well-established among Republicans, where it is most acute given the predominantly white demographics of the party. Working-class whites, buffeted by the Great Recession and an economic recovery that has seen the wealthy move further ahead, are forming a key nexus of the Trump vote.
Now, white voters appear to be stirring the Democratic race in similarly surprising ways. Senator Sanders of Vermont has long held a lead on former Secretary of State Clinton in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Feb. 9. New polls show that he is now essentially tied with Clinton in Iowa ahead of the Feb. 1 caucuses there – and even ahead among white voters nationally.
These first primary states – among the whitest in America – could dramatically change the narrative of Clinton’s primary campaign from one of inevitability to one that suggests she is teetering on a repeat of 2008, when she lost to underdog Barack Obama.
In 2016, the demographics could work in her favor, with the states that follow Iowa and New Hampshire being much more diverse, and Clinton holding a large lead on Sanders among black and Latino voters. She appeared to play to these strengths during Sunday's debate.
"Clinton made numerous appeals to black Democrats. She opened up the debate mentioning Martin Luther King Jr. ... and positioned herself as the defender and champion of President Obama’s legacy," writes Harry Enten of the "FiveThirtyEight" blog, noting that Clinton has a 57-point lead among black Democrats.
But the evidence that white primary voters might opt for a general election between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, at least at this moment, is a graphic indicator of how their thirst for “change” has only broadened and deepened since Mr. Obama’s election eight years ago.
The change they appear to want is more than a change of party or ideology to something approaching a reset button for American politics. A Trump or Sanders presidency would represent a profound rejection of business as usual in Washington. Now, it seems, white voters of both parties are seriously considering it – at least fleetingly, in the case of Democrats.
On the Republican side, the trend has been going on long enough that its causes have become fairly well known. With establishment Republicans unable to coalesce around a single candidate, antiestablishment candidates such as Mr. Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas have built strong momentum heading into the Iowa caucuses.
Sanders’s latest rise has come so suddenly and unexpectedly that its causes are less clear. Yet despite the galactic differences between Sanders and Trump on policy, a clear line strings them together as politicians.
They are candidates that lack the support of the establishment wing of their parties.
They have both chosen a central talking point that their supporters connect to a decline in the prosperity of the American middle class: For Trump, immigration; for Sanders, banks and corporate greed.
And they both exude a species of frustration on the stump that is perceived as plain-talking. “Voters this cycle want to be understood more than they want to be inspired,” wrote the Monitor’s Linda Feldmann, speaking of the Republican turn away from Reaganesque optimism.
In that way, Sanders befits the apparent mood of the times. He is a fighter. His campaign speeches are Jeremiads against corporate America. While affable and avuncular, there is also righteous anger in his political persona.
At a campaign stop in Iowa, Stephen Marche of The Guardian compared a Sanders rally with a Trump rally he had attended two days before.
“The Bernie Sanders rally in Davenport was the precise opposite of the Donald Trump rally in Burlington and yet precisely the same in every detail,” he writes. “The same specter of angry white people haunts Saunders’s rally, the same sense of longing for a country that was, the country that has been taken away.”
A November poll by Esquire and NBC News found that “White Americans are the angriest of all” groups surveyed. “Consider the white men and women in our survey: From their views on the state of the American dream (dead) and America's role in the world (not what it used to be) to how their life is working out for them (not quite what they'd had in mind), a plurality of whites tends to view life through a veil of disappointment.”
Black Americans, by contrast, “are more optimistic about the future of the country and the existence of the American dream.”
The dynamic of white frustration is one that Clinton might find difficult to counter. Obama failed in 2012: Though he won handily, it was with the lowest share of white voters ever for a winner in two-candidate race – just 39 percent.
Iowa and New Hampshire now raise the prospect that Clinton could do worse. Even last October, the view of Hillary Clinton among white men matched their view of Obama at one of the low points of his presidency, the glitch-prone rollout of healthcare.gov, noted Aaron Zitner of The Wall Street Journal last year.
A poll analysis by Vox.com shows that white Democratic voters nationwide prefer Sanders 46 to 44 percent.
Last week’s State of the Union saw a black president trying to persuade white Americans that, though troubles remained, the national situation is not nearly as bleak as the press and presidential candidates have painted it.
To Obama’s point, the Brookings Institution reported that its economic "misery index" had, from January through November 2015, been at its lowest levels since the 1950s.
But polls tell a different story. And at the moment, they are suggesting how two states that are more than 92 percent white could turn the Democratic presidential race head-over-heels.