Ben Carson watches as Donald Trump takes the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Deep in the new NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll are two questions that help explain some of the big shifts in the American electorate - particularly the Republican electorate - that have flummoxed many longtime political operatives and observers in this campaign so far. They help explain the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, the anger at the Republican establishment and the potential dangers lurking in the general election for the GOP nominee.

In both cases, pollsters read a series of statements about the direction of the country, then asked respondents how well each of those statements described them. All the answers are revealing, but two of them stand out.


1) I feel cautiously optimistic about where things are headed. It is important to remember how bad the economy was just a few years ago. The economy is improving, more Americans now have health insurance and those with pre-existing conditions are covered, more jobs are being created, and things seem to gradually getting better.

This statement is actually two feelings, followed by a string of facts, finished off with another feeling. It's objectively true that more Americans have health insurance and more jobs are being created each month; whether those facts make you optimistic varies by the individual. And boy, does it vary.

Nearly 9 out of 10 Democrats said that statement describes them very well or fairly well. Only 1 in 4 Republicans said the same. Only 1 in 20 Republicans said the statement describes them "very well."

Those results would seem to imply a huge perception gap between the parties on the state of the economy. But it's possible that the question, which sounds like it could have been written by President Obama's speechwriters, elicited a strictly partisan response. Which brings us to the next statement:

2) A lot of what is happening today makes me feel uneasy and out of place in my own country. Things seem to be heading in the wrong direction with our letting millions of immigrants into the country illegally, letting religion slip out of our public life, and moving to be more accepting of gay and lesbian rights.

The divide here is just as stark. About 7 in 10 Republicans say the statement describes them very or fairly well. Nearly half say it describes them very well. Only 3 in 10 Democrats say it describes them very or fairly well.

These are the sentiments that Trump, with his hard-line comments on immigrants, and Carson, whose frequent invocations of his Christian faith include basing an entire tax plan on Biblical tithing principles, have harnessed in their outsider campaigns for the GOP nomination.

The rest of the poll's questions fill in the blanks. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans agree that they're anxious about their personal economic situations. Nearly two-thirds are angry that the political and economic systems seem to work for people in Washington or on Wall Street, but not for them.

The New York Times' Jonathan Martin and Matt Flegenheimer reported this striking quote last month from John Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor and chief of staff to President George H. W. Bush: "I have no feeling for the electorate anymore,” he said. “It is not responding the way it used to. Their priorities are so different that if I tried to analyze it I’d be making it up.”

The priorities seem clearer from these questions: Republicans are worried the economy and American society have shifted out from under them. They're not hopeful things will improve anytime soon. And they're angry at the political system for not addressing those concerns.

Americans broadly share their feelings of anger and anxiety, the poll shows. The danger for Republicans next fall is that the shared sentiments appear stop there.

A majority of independent voters in the poll agreed with the statement about feeling optimistic. Less than half of independents - and less than 2 in 5 Hispanic voters - agreed with the statement about feeling out of place in America.

This is the needle that the eventual nominee must thread: When Republicans see the country so differently from independents, how do you win one and then the other?