After the national conventions for the Republican and Democratic parties wrapped up in late July, the 2016 U.S. general election got into full swing. Leaving aside what may happen on November 8, Election Day, now is a good time to take stock of the tumultuous primary election season. On both sides of the U.S. partisan divide, party “establishments” faced dramatic outside challenges, and we know the short-term results: Real estate mogul and reality-television star Donald Trump won the GOP nomination in a rout, humiliating and outmaneuvering Republican Party honchos, while Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-declared socialist, fell millions of primary votes short of victory over long-time Democratic Party insider Hillary Rodham Clinton. Despite some important parallels between the two insurgencies, the question is: Why did Trump do so much better than Sanders in 2016?
The answer lies partly in the nature of the challenges presented by the two outsiders, but mostly in the weaknesses and strengths of the two political party establishments. As both a political coalition and a set of institutions, the Democratic Party is robust and able to respond to challenges yet maintain control; the GOP was a hollowed-out shell by the time Trump mounted his kamikaze attack. The counterintuitive consequence could be that, once the dust settles, Bernie Sanders and his followers will have achieved a greater and more lasting impact on U.S. politics than the Donald Trump Cult that has taken over 2016 GOP presidential politics. For insurgents who want to change policy and politics in a huge, diverse nation with two composite political parties, it is perhaps better to shift agendas and rules in a party with real heft than it is to sweep in and temporarily grab the limelight in a hollowed-out political vehicle.
Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were outsiders who surprised pundits and party honchos by mounting strong challenges to apparently dominant presidential contenders—and despite obvious differences between an avowedly “socialist” leftist challenge and a strongman ethno-nationalist challenge, there were also some surprisingly similarities between the Bernie and Donald primary campaigns.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton’s run for the 2016 Democratic nomination was long planned and by mid-2015 it seemed obvious that, unless Vice President Joe Biden wanted to declare, former Secretary of State Clinton was Barack Obama’s anointed successor—a veteran of his presidential administration and long-time Party insider. Of course, Democrats regularly see mainstream candidates challenged from the liberal Left in presidential primaries, and so it was not surprising that Left progressives in the union movement and advocacy circles clamored for their own champion and called for Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, famous as a critic of Wall Street influence, to mount a run at the presidency in the name of stronger government measures to reverse U.S. economic inequalities. But Warren decided to stay out, and it looked as if Hillary Clinton would have an easy glide path to the nomination even after Sanders, a long-time self-declared “socialist” gadfly in the Senate Democratic caucus, declared that he would take up the Left-liberal cause.
This looked at first like a messaging effort, but it turned out to be a serious challenge. Although Sanders received almost no elite endorsements, pundits, journalists, and party leaders alike were all mildly shocked when he started attracting huge rallies, rose steadily in the early polling, and then pulled off victories or near misses in the 2016 Democratic primaries from New Hampshire and Iowa onward. Sanders’s showing was always enough to keep him in the contest, lobbing critiques against Clinton for being “too close” to big money donors and Wall Street. As the primaries wore on, Sanders also targeted the rules and governing committees of the Democratic Party itself, claiming that they were too insider-dominated and corrupt to accommodate what he called his “revolution” of young and working-class voters.
Donald Trump, of course, was no socialist insurgent, but he too claimed to speak for disaffected and excluded voters—in his case GOP primary voters and independents who were said to be fed up with the GOP establishment as well as with the Obama Administration. Long before he declared for the 2015–16 contests, Trump had a high national profile as a reality-television star—and he had briefly topped the 2011–12 GOP presidential polling at the height of his “Birther” crusade challenging President Obama’s American legitimacy and demanding that he release his birth certificate. More famous than Sanders from the get-go, Trump was equally an outsider in relation to his party’s leadership. At first, indeed, GOP elites and congressional leaders had trouble regarding his presidential candidacy as other than a gimmick that would soon fizzle. After all, the rest of the GOP field for 2016 was crowded and included current governors (Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio) and sitting Senators (Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida), not to mention big money-backed players like Jeb Bush, son of a former Republican President and brother to a second. Despite the fact that Trump seemed less than serious in this company, he leapt out to a strong position in early polls and, once the debates and primaries were under way, proceeding to trounce, humiliate, and eliminate one GOP competitor after another. He dispatched the final two competitors, Kasich and Cruz, in the Indiana primary on May 3, 2016, weeks before Hillary Clinton was able to complete her (actually electorally stronger) victory over Bernie Sanders in mid-June.
Both Sanders and Trump loudly proclaimed themselves the candidates speaking for America’s “working people” who had been shunned by party regulars and elites—and both of them used opposition to past and current international trade agreements, especially the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of the 1990s and the current Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, as cudgels to assert their pro-American worker bonafides against their primary competitors. Sanders and Trump alike bragged about attracting new voters from the ranks of blue collar working people to their rallies and their primary-vote tallies.
This claim was only partially true for each. Trump does seem to have gotten blue collar, non-college educated white men who usually vote for the GOP in general elections to turn out earlier, in the primaries; but in most of the Democratic primary contests, working-class turnout did not rise compared to 2008 or even 2012. As for income status, according to analysis by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, Trump’s primary voters had a lower median income (circa $71,000 a year) than the substantial higher median incomes of supporters of other GOP finalists in the primaries. But both Sanders and Clinton supporters had lower median incomes of about $61,000 a year. What is more, because Sanders supporters were much younger overall than Clinton’s, she was actually the “working class candidate” in the primaries. After all, blue collar and lower-middle-income workers these days are heavily African American and Hispanic, groups that gave overwhelming support to Clinton, not Sanders—and certainly not to Trump.
Ironically, race and gender, more than working-class status, defined the most evident similarity between Sanders and Trump primary voters, because white men predominated in both camps. Older, non-college educated white men of conservative bent are the core Trump supporters, while younger white men, including many college students and college degree-holders, were the strongest Bernie supporters. Indeed, both candidates used sexist tropes at times in their public rhetoric, and even more conspicuously both sets of supporters include men who have unabashedly used angry sexist language at rallies and in fiercely anti-Hillary online postings.
Two other similarities tell us much about how Trump and Sanders made such strong headway against established competitors. Both of these men are riveting public speakers who can thrill big rallies of political supporters. Although the two insurgent candidates’ styles and messages were very different, it was evident that both personally enjoyed the big rallies with raucous supporters—and their campaigns worked to mount such events and attract media coverage for them, to the exclusion of almost any other tactic.
Plentiful and favorable media coverage was the other advantage both the Trump and Sanders primary efforts enjoyed. The Sanders campaign constantly complained that the “big, corporate” media were biased against it and did not cover the campaign as much as Clinton’s. At some junctures, she did get higher volumes of coverage, but most of her coverage in 2015 and 2016 was negative (according to the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University), whereas Sanders got overwhelmingly positive coverage throughout. In addition, Sanders never had to face negative paid ads from Clinton or Republicans. The Clinton campaign did not want to spend its war chest on a challenger to her Left, and Republicans were happy to have Sanders harry Clinton and raise criticisms against her they planned to repeat in the general election.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump played the media best of all. As a born showman with a knack for saying outrageous things that attract cameras and clicks, Trump did not have to spend money on paid ads, because according to the best estimates he got up to $2 billion dollars in free coverage from visual, print, and internet sources that competed constantly to cover his speeches and rallies or get interviews with him. Of course, Trump made one “politically incorrect” extreme statement after another—indeed, he launched his campaign by denouncing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and by promising to exclude Muslims from the country as potential terrorists. Nevertheless, until the time he clinched the GOP nomination, most of Trump’s coverage, even from mainstream outlets, was highly favorable, according to the Shorenstein Center. Little of the Trump coverage was about issues; instead, it focused on his controversies and touted the novelty of his candidacy and his surprising strengths in polls and primaries. This played exactly into Trump’s message, which was all about the fact that he is a “winner” who beats up on established politicians and wins for the country: “Make America great again.” Projecting strength and the ability to win was the whole point for Trump.
In sum, working-class symbolism, big rallies, and favorable media worked on both ends of the political spectrum to fuel such strong 2016 insurgent campaigns in the primaries. But of course there were also differences. Beyond the fact that Trump’s voters were older and conservative-minded, while Sanders voters were younger and liberal-minded, Bernie alone proved to be a prolific fund-raiser during the primaries. Using the well-established Howard Dean/Barack Obama model of online fundraising from wage and salary earners who give repeated small amounts, Sanders amassed more than $220 million, far exceeding the primary hauls of either Hillary Clinton or most the Republican contenders. Trump raised very little money because he could mostly depend on rallies and free media, while Sanders used his vast fund-raising to supplement rallies with conventional paid advertisements and some field staff efforts as well. Sanders proved how much he could raise without reliance on big money donors, an approach that allowed him not only to stay in the primaries until the end, but also to reinforce his message attacking Democratic Party ties to big donors, a message implying no small amount of plutocratic corruption within the upper ranks of the tenured Party.
GOP Weakness versus Democratic Resilience
Considering just the insurgents themselves, Bernie Sanders should have been the greater threat to remake his party and win its presidential nomination. After all, while Trump is a neophyte in politics and created very little in the way of a campaign apparatus, Sanders is an experienced political veteran who put in place on short notice an impressive fund-raising machine plus field operations in many states. But of course more than just the candidates themselves mattered in determining the fate of the 2016 primary insurgencies. The rebels were up against very different party establishments and preexisting coalitions. Sanders tilted within a robust and resilient Democratic Party, while Trump was like a hurricane that blew in to tear down a house already vacant and riddled with termites.
Let’s start with how rickety the GOP had become by 2015, and how its weaknesses opened the door for Donald Trump. Back in 2010 and 2011, Vanessa Williamson and I did research on the elite and popular “Tea Party” reactions that erupted to the Right of the GOP after the 2008 elections that installed Barack Obama in the White House and (temporary) Democratic majorities in Congress. As we elaborated in our early 2012 book on The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (Oxford University Press), there were two different challenges to the Bush-McCain era GOP. At the popular level, angry Republican and Republican-leaning voters grabbed the Tea Party label to mount rallies and protests against Obama, aiming to push Republicans to stand up to him and his policies. As we discovered in interviews and observations, these older, white grassroots Tea Partiers, the most active of whom ultimately formed some 900 local groups that met regularly, were angry primarily about Obama himself and Democratic policies they thought would help minorities, young people, and immigrants at the expense of “real Americans” like themselves. Their top issue was not really cutting taxes or Federal spending overall. It was opposition to redistributive social programs and to immigration, especially what they saw as an overwhelmingly illegal Latino influx. In recent decades, the United States has experienced an era of high immigration, especially from Central America and Asia. Even though immigrants are assimilating and contributing to the U.S. economy as they always have done, the current newcomers have spread out all over the country in a time of rising economic inequality and stagnating incomes for ordinary Americans. Immigrants often seem especially unsettling to native older whites, whose anxieties offer openings to demagogic politicians like Trump.
Meanwhile, during the 2000s and especially since 2007, ultra-free-market elite advocacy and funding groups have been expanding their influence on the Right of the GOP. These groups, and especially the fast-growing Koch network built by libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch, jumped on the “Tea Party” bandwagon in 2009. These free-market elites pretended the popular protestors were supporting their longstanding agenda of slashing Social Security and Medicare along with elimination of business regulations and big tax cuts tilted toward the rich. During the Obama years, my current research group is showing, far Right ultra-free-market elite organizations have amassed a lot of resources at the expense of GOP party committees. Organizations in the Koch network backed by hundreds of coordinated millionaire and billionaire donors have succeeded in urging GOP officeholders and candidates to adopt extreme Right positions on tax cuts, entitlement cuts, and elimination of environmental and business regulations.
At the same time, DC-based advocacy groups like Heritage Action have pushed such agendas on Congress, going so far as to urge GOP Senate and House leaders to shut down the government in order to force President Obama to eliminate health reform and slash government budgets. Research shows that such far-Right economic agendas are not especially popular with most Americans, including registered Republicans, certainly not when they involve government shut-downs. Indeed, some far-Right economic positions—such as cutting Social Security—are not popular even with grassroots Tea Partiers, who are more passionate about cutting welfare benefits, reducing Latino immigration, and preventing undocumented immigrants already in the United States from becoming citizens.
In short, top-down and bottom-up forces on the far Right have become increasingly at odds during the Obama years, even if they agree to oppose Democrats. Indeed, elite versus populist splits were obvious even in the 2011–12 GOP presidential primaries. Most grassroots Tea Partiers were opposed to or unenthusiastic about Mitt Romney, the establishment candidate who made his peace with the far-Right elites by picking budget cutter Representative Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate. In the 2011–12 GOP primaries, about half of GOP primary voters searched for, but failed to find, a viable shared alternative to Romney. Indeed, in the spring of 2011, Donald Trump himself rose briefly to the top of GOP primary preference polls when he took center stage as Birther in Chief challenging President Obama’s legitimacy. Trump might have gotten a lot of grassroots support that year, but he declined to run for President.
After Barack Obama won re-election in 2012, populist Tea Party-minded voters in the Republican orbit, as well as many Christian conservatives, became if anything angrier about goings on in Washington, DC. They saw Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, Representatives and Senators who appealed for their support in 2010, 2012, and again in 2014 by promising to stop and roll back Obama initiatives—above all by promising to derail Obamacare and prevent executive orders protecting many undocumented immigrants. But the Congressional Republicans did not deliver on such unrealistic promises, even as outside groups like Heritage Action, plus extreme Congressional factions led by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, loudly—and falsely—proclaimed that John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and other Congressional Republicans could “stop Obama” and roll back these measures “if they really wanted to.” By mid-2015, not only were the resources available to GOP party committees shrinking as donors shifted their largess to outside far-Right organizations like Heritage Action and the Koch network’s Americans for Prosperity, but ordinary GOP voters had also soured big time on their own elected leaders. A May 2015 Pew Research Center poll revealed that up to 59 percent of Republican voters and GOP-leaning independents said that Republican Party leaders were not doing a good job dealing with issues of top concern like government spending, illegal immigration, and same-sex marriage.
Given the weakening of GOP organs and the growing elite/popular splits on the Right, we should not be surprised that matters reached a meltdown point. As the 2016 presidential primaries got going in the summer of 2015, it became obvious that the “establishment” candidates—including Jeb Bush, who had a lot of business backing, and Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, who were preferred by most big money extra-Party donors in the Koch network—were going to get a run for their money from “burn down the establishment” types like Senator Ted Cruz. Then in the summer of 2015, Donald Trump announced his bid. Already well known to many angry GOP voters, Trump immediately leapt to the top or close to the top in most primary preference polls—and over ensuing months he never gave up his plurality winning position against 16 primary competitors. He captured 30 to 40 percent of Republican primary voters, until the period from April 2016 onward when he started claiming outright majorities in key contests in the Northeast and Midwest. Soon after his last opponents were vanquished on May 3, Trump sealed the delegate majorities needed to claim the nomination, even though growing numbers of GOP elites, officeholders, party officials, and big money funders dreaded this outcome. Elite opposition if anything helped Trump, because from the perspective of many angry GOP base voters, The Donald was a perfect cudgel to wield not just against the hated Barack Obama and Democrats, but equally against GOP establishment politicians who angry voters believed had betrayed them.
Not incidentally, Trump kept thrilling his supporters with angry attacks on Mexican immigrants, Muslim “terrorists,” international trade pacts, and defense decisions that, he claimed, were “selling out” and “weakening” the United States. Trump proclaimed himself to be the only one who could exert “law and order” and drive tough “bargains” to “make America great again.” This ethno-nationalist message was—and remains—music to the ears of Trump’s older and/or mostly male white supporters. Research from Pew shows that, compared to all Republicans and conservatives, Trump supporters are much more inclined to say that “growing numbers of newcomers from other countries threaten U.S. values,” that “Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence,” and that it is “bad for the country that blacks, Latinos, and Asians will be a majority of the population.”
Turning from the Right to Left, let’s look at the situation Bernie Sanders faced. If Donald Trump’s insurgency was able to overrun a Republican Party already weakened by outside pressures and elite/popular splits, Bernie Sanders launched his challenge to insider Democratic presidential favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton in a very different political and institutional context. To be sure, there were some Democratic weaknesses and fissures that created openings for Sanders. Democrats have been sharply divided about the value of completing the newest international trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and they also disagree to some extent about how far to go in reducing Wall Street’s sway in the U.S. economy. Any Left challenger had ready-made congressional allies to press Clinton on these issues, and potential supporters outside Congress among some unions and advocacy groups.
In addition, although the Democratic Party’s various national committees in the 2000s have held their own compared to outside groups much more effectively than GOP party committees did against right-wing organizations, the Democratic National Committee specifically was directed by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a leader who had alienated many state officials and other Democrats across the board, but she was not replaced for 2015–16. President Barack Obama was urged to replace her, but he wanted to avoid a fight until after the next presidential nominee was chosen, understanding that then, as usual, the DNC leadership would be remade. However, this left Wasserman Schultz as a vulnerable target that the Sanders insurgents eventually took aim at—aided in July 2016 by some Russian hackers who obtained and released some embarrassing internal staff emails showing (surprise!) that DNC loyalists preferred Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. The DNC had not actually been able to do much to influence the primaries, certainly not as much as many state’s preexisting super-delegate rules, but it looked bad, and Wasserman-Shultz was a popular target, easy to scapegoat as someone who had sought to “rig” Party procedures against Sanders.
However, weaknesses like this in the Democratic Party coalition and organizations did little more than help Sanders raise complaints during his primary run. They were nothing compared to the divisions and weaknesses of Republicans who had to contend with Trump. Overall, the Democratic Party by 2015–16 was coming off a reasonably popular two-term presidency with an almost universally popular leader, Barack Obama, able to use the White House as a bully pulpit to help his party and (subtly) his preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton. In addition, the Party has energized and growing minority constituencies of African American and Latino voters, who were in no mood to take risks with a far-Left white liberal challenger to Clinton.
So confident and strong were Democrats by 2016 that they were able to respond flexibly to the remarkably energetic Sanders challenge, and maneuver to find ways to channel many of his voters toward participation in the Democratic general election efforts this fall. Democratic officials let Sanders, a long-time independent, re-register as a Democrat and run in the primaries. On the whole, they treated him and his campaign fairly, offering them full access to Party information systems. True, the primary debates were downplayed by Wasserman Schultz, but that actually may have hurt Clinton as much as Sanders, because she always did well when the two major contenders debated. Mostly, Democrats just got overshadowed in 2015 and early 2016 by the overwhelming media focus on Trump and the GOP primaries.
From March and April on, it was obvious that Sanders could not overtake Clinton in votes or delegates to win the nomination, given proportional delegate allocation rules for the Democratic primaries. Many Democratic insiders became increasingly irritated that Sanders would not drop out and get behind Clinton, but despite much grumbling, no official Party leaders, including Obama or the Democratic congressional leaders, openly criticized Sanders. He was given a lot of space to keep appealing to his voters, run in the all of the primaries, and bargain over the contents of the Democratic platform well into July, until the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
In the end, patience and forbearance paid off for all. Clinton herself accepted some of Sanders’s policy positions as her own, and the Democratic platform committee was reorganized to include more Sanders supporters and adopt a number of his policy priorities. Clinton made promises to Sanders about remaking the leadership of the Democratic National Committee to facilitate ongoing outreach to his voters. By the end of the Democratic Convention in late July, it was apparent that all these gestures would be carried through. Sanders threw his support behind Clinton’s nomination, and various polls show up to 90 percent of his voters shifting their support to Clinton against Trump. Outsized media attention goes to a minority of “Bernie or Bust” holdouts, some loudly insisting they will never vote for Clinton and will stay home or vote for the Green Party candidate Jill Stein. But these dead-enders are likely to dwindle and not matter much in November 2016.
Like previous Left-liberal Democratic challengers such as Howard Dean, Sanders plans to continue organizing his supporters to elect down-ballot Democrats and push their policy agendas in and through the Party. A post-primary organization called “Our Revolution” has been launched and is raising funds using Sanders’s email lists of millions of primary supporters. The Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party were not able to persuade Sanders to just turn his operation over, but there are signs that his funders and voters will cooperate with the Clinton campaign through November 2016. Overall, the Democratic Party showed its responsiveness in resilience. Its “mainstream” candidate, Hillary Clinton, won the nomination, and the challenger, Bernie Sanders, has had his day and is registering his impact without blowing up the Democratic big tent.
A double bottom line can be drawn for the fate of the two anti-party insurgencies that rocked U.S. politics from the Left and Right in the recent presidential primaries. The obvious bottom line is that the insurgency on the Right triumphed via the loose-cannon nativist candidacy of media-hogging Donald Trump, while the challenge to the Democratic “establishment” fell short, as all such Left-liberal challenges have done since those of Bill Bradley and Howard Dean. Indeed, Left-liberal challenges in Democratic presidential primaries are a routine occurrence, far from revolutionary, and they always fall short. The one successful effort was the Barack Obama challenge in 2008, which succeeded because it did what none of the others, including the Sanders effort, have accomplished: unite white liberals with African American and other minority voters. The Democratic Party is now Barack Obama’s party, owned by the insurgent coalition he built for 2008 and 2012, and it was Hillary Clinton, not Sanders, who attracted most of that coalition’s support in the 2016 primaries, deflecting and to some degree absorbing the Sanders challenge from white Left-liberals.
The second bottom line is unlikely to come into view for a while. Assuming that November 2016 brings a Hillary Clinton victory over Donald Trump, what then for the two major parties? The Republicans will be in disarray, grappling even more with the same dire institutional weaknesses and splits between elites and populist voters that opened the door to the hostile Trump takeover in 2016. The old established forces of ultra-free-market elites, business interests, and Christian Right networks will try to reassert control, try to take the Party back to where it was before Trump. But the power of nativism has been revealed and many Trump voters are unlikely to just go away. Republicans may remain sharply divided for years, and see various efforts by more self-controlled and well-organized candidates to appeal to his voters along with other GOP constituencies. Senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton are all likely to try their hand at bridging coalitional divides, joined by the likes of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Indiana Governor and Trump running mate Mike Pence. GOP tensions will not go away, and neither will extreme tactics on the Right in and beyond Washington, DC.
On the Democratic side, much depends on whether the Party retakes control of the Senate and puts a new President Clinton is a position to make some policy headway. If that happens, the door may also be open for the Sanders after-campaign and other Left-liberals inside and outside of government to advance their own policy preferences, such as more generous aid to college students and an expansion of health reform. We may well see enduring networks and organizations of progressives institutionalizing themselves on the Left of the Democratic Party and exerting sustained influence through Party organs. If Democrats of all stripes prove able to get out the vote in midterm and not just presidential election years, and for down-ballot and state-level candidates, not just presidential contenders, the Democratic Party could emerge in the 2020s as a truly nationally predominant force. And Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren Democrats—an approximation to what the late Paul Wellstone once dubbed “the Democratic Party wing of the Democratic Party”—could wield considerable influence in this revamped Party.
This scenario of a progressive victory snatched from a 2016 Bernie shortfall is far from assured or even very likely, because Republicans will retain much clout in Congress and in dozens of states even if Trump crashes in November 2016. Republicans and the Right may very well be able to frustrate and undercut a Clinton presidency, fanning American disillusionment with all parties and candidates by 2018 and beyond.
What the immediate future holds for Democrats following a possible Clinton win on November 8 is far from certain. But what we can say with some certainty is that if the Democratic Party, it officeholders, coalition members, and voters, manage to build influence from 2017 on, then so will the Bernie Sanders wing of the Party. It may turn out that the Sanders insurgency registers longer-term gains in its party than the Trump insurgency does in the GOP. If so, that will be because it is far better to build influence in a successful party, with some coherence and staying power, than it is to crash a party already teetering on the edge of implosion.