A year ago, who would have believed that the two dominant political figures in the early stages of the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign would be Republican contender Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders?
The election is still more than 14 months away and a lot can and will happen between now and then, but the rise of Trump and Sanders and why they are striking some chords with the public says a lot about the current state of U.S. politics.
Trump the showman
Trump’s image as a self-funded political outsider and straight-talker has great appeal with conservative Republican voters who lament the direction of the country and who are nostalgic for the way things used to be.
Trump’s background as a reality TV star has served him well. He is a master showman and enjoys the limelight, teasing an audience this week in Michigan by looking into the future. “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump,” he said to loud applause.
So far, Trump’s record of verbal attacks on Mexican immigrants and his fellow Republican White House contenders have not hurt him much in the polls, where he leads both nationally and in key early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
And despite mixed reviews in the first Republican debate and concerns about his blunt style, Trump, who also boast a multi-billion dollar real estate empire, remains atop the polls and continues to draw enthusiastic crowds. “We have heads being chopped off because they are Christian in the Middle East,” Trump said in his Michigan speech. “We have borders where people are being killed all up. The world is cracking up and they (other Republican contenders) are worried about my tone. I should be toning it down, down.”
Rivals try to respond
Fellow Republican contender Jeb Bush told supporters at a rally in Nevada that Trump’s rhetoric is divisive and could hurt the Republican Party in next year’s election. “I’m frustrated like you are that the system isn’t working and the government is not working on our behalf. But there is no reason to be paralyzed by anger,” Bush said.
Other rivals are stepping up their direct attacks, including with an anti-Trump ad issued this week by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. The Paul ad highlights past Trump comments praising Democrats including frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
Despite the Trump surge in recent months, Republicans still have 17 candidates to choose from and a long way to go before the field gets sorted out, said analyst Josh Kraushaar, the executive editor of the Hotline. “Jeb Bush is one of the frontrunners and he didn’t really own the debate stage. It is a real warning sign that there is no frontrunner in this Republican field and this Republican nomination is wide open.”
Sanders a growing force
Democrats have their own surprise contender in Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who continues to draw huge crowds among liberal Democrats looking for an alternative to Clinton. Sanders has focused on income inequality and the power of wealthy individuals and corporations influencing politics.
“When we stand united, we can create a new America,” Sanders told a huge crowd in California this week.
Sanders leads in a recent New Hampshire poll as Clinton battles doubts about her trustworthiness fueled by a controversy over her email practices while secretary of state.
Clinton’s difficulties have increasingly become the focus of the Republican presidential field. “They think Hillary Clinton is vulnerable and the scandal over her email server is certainly giving them optimism on that front,” said Josh Kraushaar. “So they think this is a very ripe time to run and they feel Democrats are vulnerable come 2016.”
Clinton has long been seen as the Democratic frontrunner. But her political problems of late have some Democrats urging a run by Vice President Joe Biden, who so far has not ruled out a bid. In fact, the official “Draft Biden” effort recently announced the hiring of additional staff.
There are also reports that aides to former vice president Al Gore, the loser of the 2000 election, have urged him to consider entering the race. No official comment from Gore on that as yet. But analysts warn that if Clinton remains embattled, pressure could mount on other well-known Democrats to make a late entry into the race.