If the 2016 presidential race goes down as anything, it could go down as the year of the “un-politician” or “un-candidate.” A quick look at the polls shows us that those candidates doing the best are far from traditional politicians.
In the Democratic primary race, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), a cantankerous and grumpy old man who calls himself a Democratic Socialist, has captured 30% of the vote. Sanders refuses to participate in politics as usual or even criticize his major rival, Hillary Clinton, while talking about issues, yet he’s drawing crowds of up to 28,000 and reportedly got 105,000 people to watch a video address on July 29.
Sanders has also accumulated a war chest of more than $15.2 million according to The New York Times. Among other things, Sanders refuses to talk about his personal life or show pictures of his children and refused to organize a super PAC to take money from millionaires and corporations.
Over in the Republican contest, the leader is Donald Trump, real estate developer, failed casino owner, beauty contest promoter, frustrated football mogul and reality TV star whose campaign style is straight out of the movie Network. Trump has 25% of the vote, but other un-candidates are gaining traction. Dr. Ben Carson, surgeon turned conservative prophet, now has 12% of the vote, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has 5%.
All of these candidates have one thing in common: They’re un-politicians that break all the rules. Only one of them, Sanders, has experience in political office, and his experience is as a socialist maverick from an unusual state who operates far outside the mainstream. In particular, they like to break all the campaign rules.
Rise of the Un-Candidates
Neither Trump nor Sanders is very polished, but each is highly aggressive and combative in his own way. Trump and Sanders also like to flaunt conventions; both have openly criticized reporters and argued with the media on the campaign trail. Sanders simply refuses to run a modern campaign; his speeches are little more than lectures on the issues, while Trump seems to like to pick fights with everybody and attracts crowds with stunts like free helicopter rides for kids.
Another attribute that Sanders and Trump have in common is that they like to emphasize controversial “big ideas” other politicians will not touch. Sanders talks about federally financed college tuition and single payer health care, while Trump rants about deporting immigrants and closing the borders. That generates publicity through controversy and criticism, and the crowds seem to love it.
Yet they’re doing far better than traditional candidates; super polished former Maryland Governor; and super PAC favorite, Martin O’Malley has just 1% of the Democratic vote. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry; another super PAC favorite, is doing so badly he could soon drop out. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who was considered the Republican front runner just a few weeks back, has just 9% of the vote. Were Vice President Joe Biden to jump in, he would get just 10% of the vote.
Is This the New American Politics?
So does this mark a paradigm shift in American politics? I do not know; after all, we’ve seen un-candidates before, including Ron Paul, Ross Perot, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Hughie Long, George Wallace, William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt and Barry Goldwater to name a few. Not all of them succeeded in getting elected, but they all managed to disrupt the political process.
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Disruption could be the real name of the game here. Sanders’ campaign in particular reminds me a lot of a Silicon Valley startup: a messy, data-driven effort in which traditional lines are blurred. This eye-opening Politico article on the process Sanders uses to attract huge crowds to his rallies shows what a cutting edge political entrepreneur the Vermont firebrand really is
In Sanders’ campaign’ the volunteers and social media seem to be driving the effort and are now attracting the attention of professional political operators, much like the way in which a successful tech startup attracts venture capitalists and experienced executive talent as it grows. Like companies such as Google, Sanders has succeeded by disrupting the status quo, just as Trump is trying to do.
Trump’s race is more like one of his business ventures. It is brash, rule breaking, and in your face with little attention paid to the niceties. Trump’s methodology seems to be make a splash now, organize later. A sort of political blitzkrieg based on a hit them fast and hit them hard strategy; whether that can work in politics remains to be seen. Sanders, in contrast, seems to be waging a sort of political guerilla warfare: build up an army on the fringes, win some small victories and leverage them to get the resources for the big battle later on.
It is too early to see whether this will change American politics or not. Trump’s campaign in particular seems to be of little substance, but Sanders’ efforts could be a real game changer if they succeed. Sanders could succeed in reorienting American politics away from big media like television to social media and other more grassroots mediums, which would be a paradigm shift of major proportions—the biggest since television replaced newspapers as the most influential political media in the United States in the 1960s.
If either Sanders or Trump is successful, the most likely result will be established, successful politicians trying to repackage themselves as un-candidates by adopting their tactics. Whether the public buys that act or not remains to be seen.