The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s not just Trump: Voter anger fuels outsider candidates

How could Donald Trump's campaign possibly still be alive, given all of the impolitic things he's said? The Post's Chris Cillizza has the answer. (Video: Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

This has become the summer of the political outsider, as a cast of interlopers upend and dominate the presidential nominating process in both parties.

The surging candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are fueled by people’s anger with the status quo and desire for authenticity in political leaders. Across the ideological spectrum, candidates are gaining traction by separating themselves from the political and economic system that many everyday Americans view as rigged against them.

“There are a lot of voters who are exceptionally frustrated with traditional politics and politicians and who quite simply feel failed by the system,” said pollster Geoff Garin, who advises Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. “A lot of this anger crosses party lines in the sense that it is directed at what people see as a concentration of wealth and power that leaves them holding the short end of the stick.”

Consider recent developments in the Republican race. Rick Perry was the governor of Texas for 14 years and had an enviable record on jobs to boot, but his presi­dential campaign is running on fumes. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham has served on Capitol Hill for a quarter-century, yet the South Carolina Republican barely cracks 1 percent in the polls.

In stark contrast, Ben Carson, a soft-spoken retired neurosurgeon with far more expertise in separating conjoined twins than in brokering trade agreements, is surging in recent polls and drew one of the biggest campaign crowds yet in Des Moines last week. Carly Fiorina, a businesswoman who has never held elective office, is also on the upswing.

Bernie Sanders takes his presidential campaign to Iowa and California

CLEAR LAKE, IOWA - AUGUST 14: Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) waves to cheering supporters during the 2015 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, on Friday, August 14, 2015. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Then there is Trump. The brash billionaire, who loudly brands politicians as “stupid” and “losers,” has rocketed to front-runner status.

On the left, Sanders has blazed a similar outside trail. The self-described socialist senator from Vermont, who routinely scolds the Washington and Wall Street establishments, is giving Clinton a scare. He has drawn massive overflow crowds — and on Wednesday, he surpassed Clinton in a New Hampshire poll for the first time.

“There’s a longing for real authenticity in politics today,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who is advising Sanders. “People feel that the candidates are too manufactured, there’s not enough spontaneity. They want someone who, even if they don’t agree with them, is telling it like they see it, really leveling with voters. I see that with Bernie and I think with Trump, too. It’s resonating very powerfully.”

Clinton has been treading carefully in responding to the populist threat Sanders poses, but she has spent the summer laying out a progressive agenda on immigration reform, voting rights, college affordability, regulating the financial sector and economic pocketbook concerns, such as expanding paid leave.

Sanders had his first edge over Clinton on Wednesday, when a Franklin Pierce University-Boston Herald poll showed him with 44 percent support to Clinton's 37 percent among likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire, home to the nation's first primary.

But Clinton has a decisive lead in national polls as well as in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first caucuses. Support for Sanders is concentrated among highly educated white liberals, and he has struggled to make inroads with minority groups.

The outsider dynamic is more pronounced on the Republican side, where Trump and other candidates are galvanizing conservative activists while a few governors and senators are splitting the party establishment vote.

Carson’s and Fiorina’s stock has risen after last week’s first primary debate, as has that of Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), who, despite a career in politics, has positioned himself firmly as antiestablishment.

Post-debate polls show these candidates gaining ground. In Iowa, a CNN survey released Wednesday shows Trump leading with 22 percent and Carson in second, with 14 percent. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who had been the Iowa front-runner, was third, with 9 percent, followed by Cruz and Fiorina, with 8 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

In New Hampshire, the Franklin Pierce University-Boston Herald survey had Trump in the lead, with 18 percent, followed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush in second, with 13 percent, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in third, with 12 percent. Cruz and Fiorina are fourth and fifth, with 10 percent and 9 percent.

“There’s a disquiet, discomfort and angst that so many people are feeling,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who advises Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). “They’re scared economically, they’re scared about what’s happening with our adversaries, and it makes them really, really uncomfortable with where the country’s going and where the leaders are going.”

Insider candidates are by no means out of the game. Bush is the clear fundraising leader and holds his own in polling. Many Republicans and Democrats consider the former Florida governor the most likely eventual nominee. On Tuesday, Bush posted a photo of a turtle on Instagram — "joyful tortoise," read his caption — as a metaphor for his position in the contest.

Rubio gave what many GOP insiders considered a sparkling debate performance and also is viewed as a plausible nominee. Walker has polled at or near the top all year in Iowa and is laying the groundwork for an aggressive national campaign. And Kasich, a late entrant, has risen in New Hampshire on the strength of his debate performance as well as a television advertising campaign in the state by his allied super PAC.

But it’s the fiery insurgents — especially Trump, but also Fiorina and others — who are generating buzz and media attention at the moment, drowning out and frustrating some of their more established opponents.

Among the victims is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has served in government nearly his entire adult life and considers the presidency the next step on his career ladder. But he has been unable to break out of the bottom of a 17-candidate pack.

"The media is glued to everything Donald Trump says," Jindal complained to reporters this week.

History is filled with examples of outsider candidacies that galvanize activists but run out of gas.

“Wherever the insurgency was — and it didn’t matter which party it was in — the establishment had almost ironclad control over the rules, over the money,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. “They could form a firing squad and just hail ammo at you until you drop.”

But now, Trippi said, social media and digital communications make it far easier for outsiders to get their message out and mobilize supporters. “Both parties are losing control,” he said.

Officials in the Bush, Walker, Rubio and Kasich campaigns say they are not concerned about Trump’s summer rise. It is only August, after all, and they argued that the race will remain unsettled through the fall.

“We’ve always thought this race was wide open, and the events of the last week tell us clearly that it is,” said John Weaver, Kasich’s chief strategist. “There is no front-runner.”

Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant who is not aligned with a presidential campaign, said voters eventually will gravitate toward the more serious contenders.

“I think that after people get their yips out about Trump, people are going to ask, ‘How do we have the right person to post up against Hillary Clinton? Who can break the code?’ ” Wilson said. “A lot of the Trump stuff is an emotional response to being furious about the establishment, about immigration, all these other sensations that are not illegitimate feelings but that are not going to be politically viable for the long haul.”

Anthony Scaramucci, one of Walker’s top national fundraisers, foresees a calming of the race that could benefit a candidate like Walker. “I think the cream will rise to the top and Governor Walker will be way more effective with less people on stage,” he said. “He’s more steak than sizzle.”

But other Republicans think the tempest that Trump has whipped up will not die down. One of them is Cruz, who is among the best-funded candidates and is building a nationwide grass-roots organization. Cruz has refrained from attacking Trump, setting himself up to capture the anti-establishment vote when it looks for its final home this winter.

“I don’t think it is necessarily a majority of either party that is fueled by fury,” Garin said, “but there are a lot of furious voters out there who feel completely alienated from and let down by politics as usual.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.