Angry Voters: Who Will They Support?
In the second of a two-part series on voter anger, RealClearPolitics looks at which 2016 candidate stands to benefit most from the widespread disaffection.
Marco Rubio begins his stump speeches these days with a nod to the anxious electorate — people who say they “don't recognize” their own country anymore, people who "feel left out and left behind."
Ted Cruz's message speaks to the anger and frustration people feel toward politics and politicians. "With me, when I tell you I'm going to do something, I'm going to do exactly what I said I'm going to do,” he said during a bus tour through Iowa.
Donald Trump hits nearly every area of voter angst on the stump, from ISIS to immigration, nuclear treaties to trade deals. "We are being led by stupid people," he said in Burlington, Vt., last week, adding: "I'm so upset and angry with the Republicans."
And Bernie Sanders, who has captured voters’ attention with his message of economic populism, is leading Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and is catching up to her in Iowa.
Nearly all the candidates running for president have picked up on and tried to tap into the electorate’s unrest and mistrust.
"Let's take this righteous anger and frustration and make it productive for our party and for our nation,” Chris Christie said, making a pitch to New Hampshire voters last week. “I’m not afraid of these emotions — God's sakes, I'm from New Jersey. How could I be afraid of anger and frustration?"
Trump’s ability to stay atop the GOP field for months has put a spotlight on disaffected voters. He would seem to be the benefactor of their widespread dissatisfaction at the polls.
But it's not that simple. Angry voters have choices this election cycle. And with voting set to begin in a few weeks, many candidates are making their cases as to why it should be them.
Trump is synonymous with the emergence of the angry voter in 2016. But the most recent era of discontent dates back more than six years, when the grassroots Tea Party movement propelled Republicans into the majority in the House. (Rubio was elected to the Senate in that 2010 wave.) And while Obama won re-election in 2012, Republicans have continued to sweep up seats in state legislatures and in Congress. In 2014, another GOP wave gave the party control of the Senate.
"There's been a sea change taking place at a fundamental level in American politics," says Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. "You don't get the rise of outsiders in national politics in a vacuum. This political base has now been active for six years."
The angry voter has long been a staple of Democratic politics, too, as evidenced by Howard Dean's run in 2004. Electability, however, plays an outsized role in modern Democratic politics.
"As angry as Democratic primary voters were at the Democratic establishment in 2004, they were far more afraid of George W. Bush's re-election," says Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who managed Dean's campaign. This cycle, "Democrats know that if the GOP wins the presidency there is nothing left to stop the GOP agenda. That puts winning and electability at a higher level."
Cognizant of this, Sanders has been promoting his own eligibility argument this week, pointing with glee to a poll that shows him beating Trump by a larger margin than Clinton does in hypothetical head-to-head matchups.
“If people are concerned about electability — and Democrats should be very concerned because we certainly don’t want to see some right-wing extremist in the White House — Bernie Sanders is the candidate,” the Vermont senator told ABC’s “This Week.”
On the Republican side, Meckler says Trump, Cruz and potentially Rubio will likely be the benefactors of voter anger.
"It's about who will do the most effective job against Hillary Clinton on the debate stage, who is going to go on the attack and handle the attacks," Meckler says. "This is one of the reasons Trump is so well liked, because there is nothing he won't go after."
Trump is seen as the ultimate outsider, deterred by nothing, and Cruz has proven himself a fighter from within. Rubio, while considered an establishment favorite, has earned credibility among such an electorate with his call for a states’ convention to change the Constitution, says Meckler, now president of Citizens for Self-Governance, which advocates for such a gathering.
That call has become a centerpiece of Rubio's stump speech. He argues Washington can't fix itself and that collective state action is the only way to pass term limits for lawmakers and achieve a balanced budget amendment.
Once a Tea Party darling, Rubio is has been accused of ignoring the movement after he got into office. Other conservatives take issue with his sponsorship of the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013 but quickly became anathema in the Republican Party.
On the campaign trail and in polls, voters dislike the state of politics. The sentiment is particularly resonant among Republican voters who believe the country is on the wrong track and are disappointed that elected Republican majorities don’t have much to show for it legislatively. In presidential contests, conservatives are tired of nominating so-called establishment candidates and losing.
"All of that adds up to this incredibly high level of frustration that is really starting to broaden, deepen and translate," says Greg Mueller, a conservative Republican strategist and veteran of Pat Buchanan's insurgent presidential campaign in 1996.
"It's like a pressure cooker," he says. "Eventually the steam will have to come out of that, and it's getting to a boiling point in the 2016 election."
Cruz does particularly well in this regard, says Mueller, as he is perceived among supporters as fighting Washington, even if from the inside.
Leery of making angry voters even angrier, Cruz has refrained from attacking Trump, even though “The Apprentice” star has dominated in the polls. Seemingly frustrated by Cruz’s restraint, Trump has been trying to provoke his rival by raising questions about the senator's citizenship. (He was born in Canada to an American mother.) Cruz tried to swat away Trump’s insinuations with humor, while also noting that his own lead in Iowa polling has his competitors on edge.
Trump and Cruz are leading in Iowa and nationally, while the establishment side has yet to coalesce around a candidate. While Rubio is hoping to tap into voter anguish, his path to the nomination is unclear. He still has to compete with Christie and John Kasich — and to some extent, Jeb Bush — in New Hampshire, the first primary state that figures to winnow the field.
Rubio has started to add doom and gloom to his optimistic pitch: The economy no longer works for the middle class, the United States is no longer a power on the global stage, and the world seems to be more dangerous. He laments that people who hold "traditional values" are labeled bigots.
But more so than Trump or even Cruz, Rubio puts the blame squarely on Obama.
"In 2008, unfortunately, America elected as president Barack Obama, who was not interested in fixing problems in America," he said. "Barack Obama wanted to change America, to radically and fundamentally transform America."
It’s a message that would appeal to Jim Barber, an upstate New York resident who attended a Trump rally in Burlington.
“It starts at the top — Obama, all day long,” said Barber, who owns and runs an insurance business. “We need some real change. People are just tired of it. So many bad things going on — health care, what's going on in the Middle East, people losing their jobs. I'm worried about my kids. It’s totally anger. This is America, ya’ know? We should be doing better. We need better.”
Barber is intent on supporting Trump. No other candidate, he said, represents the change he seeks.