The American political and economic systems woke up Wednesday morning to a full-throated populist revolt.
It may not last through springtime. It may disappoint its advocates and fail to produce sweeping changes of any kind. Favorites of the so-called Washington establishment may yet become the major party nominees who face off in November’s general election.
But the smashing New Hampshire primary victories of Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and bombastic Republican billionaire Donald Trump represent a primal scream that by itself will have consequences for the 2016 presidential race.
Their common wellspring is the economy’s decades-long failure to deliver the big gains in living standards that Americans became accustomed to in the post-World War II boom times. For a while, America’s receding dominance of the global economy was masked by a surge in two-paycheck households as women entered the workforce, by dramatic expansion of both consumer credit and government borrowing, by surging stock values and real estate prices that inflated household wealth.
Sanders translates that failure into outrage against Wall Street and the “millionaires and billionaires” who have prospered in the increasingly integrated global economy. That message holds powerful appeal to Democratic liberals, including young voters saddled with large repayment burdens for the borrowing that allowed them to pay for college.
“Tonight we serve notice to the political and economic establishment of this country that the American people will not continue to accept a corrupt campaign finance system that is undermining American democracy,” the Vermont U.S. senator said in his New Hampshire victory address. “We will not accept a rigged economy in which ordinary Americans work longer hours for lower wages while almost all new income and wealth goes to the top 1 percent.”
Despite his personal fortune, Trump has voiced similar sentiments. He invokes his own experience as a donor as an example of campaign finance corruption, rips hedge fund managers for dodging taxes, and joins Sanders in blasting the pharmaceutical industry for reaping undeserved profits.
The difference in his message, targeted toward the Republican Party’s swelling ranks of working-class white voters, is in his identification of external threats to Americans’ economic well-being. His strongest emotional appeal lies in the issues of immigration and trade.
“We are going to make America great again,” he told New Hampshire supporters in his victory speech. “But we’re going to do it the old fashioned way. We’re going to beat China, Japan. We’re going to beat Mexico at trade.
“We’re going to beat all of these countries that are taking so much of our money away from us on a daily basis. It’s not going to happen anymore.”
Upcoming contests in Nevada, South Carolina and across the South in the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries will strongly test both candidates.
In South Carolina, Trump faces an array of rivals: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, revived at least temporarily by his second-place New Hampshire finish, consistent conservative Ted Cruz, and Florida rivals Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Bush will attempt to draw on residual affection for his family name; Rubio will try to recover from the debate disaster that consigned him to fifth place in New Hampshire.
For now, the number of surviving candidates works in Trump’s favor by splitting the votes of the Republican majority opposed to him. But that advantage won’t last indefinitely; over time, a narrowing field reduces his odds of victory.
The hurdle facing Sanders is largely demographic. Hillary Clinton begins this next phase of the campaign with a big edge among the African-American and Hispanic voters who represent a much bigger share of the Democratic electorate than in overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire.
Yet to prevail Clinton — identified along with her former president husband with centrism on economic policy — will likely need to incorporate more Sanders-style populism in her message. Similarly, any “establishment” rival to defeat Trump will also need to co-opt strains of what has made him appealing.