WASHINGTON — If you live in the early voting states of Iowa or New Hampshire, you can’t turn on a TV without seeing a presidential campaign ad. You can’t pick up a landline phone, if you have one, without hearing a campaign message. Same with your Facebook page and email account. Pretty soon, you won’t be able to open your door without confronting a campaign volunteer.
America has just entered another extravagant, convoluted, exhausting presidential election year — after an extravagant, convoluted, exhausting pre-election year. The circus won’t end until November. No other country takes this long to pick a leader.
The United States recovered, more or less, from the disputed and almost crippling election of 2000, from the terrorist attacks of 2001 and from the Great Recession of 2008. But the back-to-back presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have neither healed institutions nor instilled long-lasting hope.
Today, with less than 30 days until the first votes are cast in Iowa, it feels like something was fractured that never healed. America’s confidence in itself is gone, replaced by a Republican strut that bespeaks insecurity, not real strength, and a Democratic earnestness that can seem all too naive.
Voters in 2016 are more skeptical than ever of leaders in all realms, beset by a lack of growth in real wages, and vociferously divided on immigration, race, religion, policing, guns, terrorism, refugees and drugs.
The kind of anti-establishment sentiment heard around the world — from the early days of the Arab Spring to the darker nationalist movements in Germany and France — echoes loudly in the U.S. Voters are drawn to the energy and electricity of candidates who vow to smash the power of institutions from Wall Street to Washington, from university campuses to the media.
“Voters feel they have lost control of the world they knew, economically, culturally, socially,” said Tad Devine, a top adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“So they are lashing out in one way or another. For Democrats, it tends to be lost manufacturing jobs, low wages, Wall Street and the banks. Among Republicans, it’s immigration, courts supporting gay marriage, and big government, by which they mostly mean higher federal taxes,” Devine said.
This potent brew fuels “outsider” candidacies in both parties — led, of course, by real estate mogul and entertainer Donald Trump.
Time and time again, Trump has confounded media experts and leaders in his party. They predicted that he would not run, that he would never get off the ground, that he would have no staying power. Now they say his supporters won’t show up to vote for him at the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 or the New Hampshire primary the next week.
Maybe not, but for now he is the frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Only in America would a man who claims to be worth $10 billion also claim to be an “outsider.” But the public is so disgusted with politics, politicians and Washington that a significant number of Republicans are willing to take him seriously.
Only in such fear-ridden, mean-spirited times would Trump’s naked racism and raw religious prejudice dominate the mainstream of campaign discourse. He and his rhetoric have swept along the rest of the GOP field, which competes to see who can match Trump in outrage.
In that race within a race, the acidic Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is gaining ground by being the technocratic version of Trump. Cruz is a man with as many prejudices and resentments as Trump, but he is selling himself as a better demolition expert because he has spent three years in the U.S. Senate and was a stellar student at Harvard Law School.
Supposedly more-establishment candidates, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, are inching upward in the polls by mimicking the style and antagonistic language of Trump and Cruz.
The former first lady/former senator/former secretary of state has organized intensively and tried to address the economic disquiet in her Democratic Party with solid policy proposals that move her cautiously into the anti-Wall Street camp. But the mood of the country is more dangerous to her chances than her supporters admit or outside analysts recognize.
This isn’t a good time to be the embodiment of a political insider. But she is. Clinton and her husband have grown very wealthy over their decades in politics. They have become experts at currying the favor of rich donors, many of whom are now their personal friends.
Among frustrated voters, however, the passage of time works against Clinton. Between her and her husband, they’ve been in electoral politics since 1974 — 1970 if you count Bill Clinton’s stint as a campaign aide in a Connecticut race while he was a student at Yale Law School.
“She and Bill represent the past in every way,” said Cruz adviser Rick Tyler. “They just aren’t interesting anymore.”
In the latest polls, she’s actually running behind in match-ups against both Rubio and Cruz.
As for Clinton’s lock on the Democratic nomination, it may not be as firm as most think. Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist from Vermont, raised almost as much money as she did in the last quarter of 2015, and he did it with a record number of small donations nationwide.
Sanders’ angry populism doesn’t attack “big government” — he’s for more of it. Instead, he goes after Wall Street, the big banks and the big global corporate employers.
And it’s clicking.
“I’m not saying we are going to win,” said Sanders adviser Devine. “But we are not going away.”