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Phoenix, Arizona: Trump at a campaign event in July

CREDIT: Ross D. Franklin/AP Images

Party Crashers

Upstart candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are shaking up the 2016 presidential election

One is a billionaire real estate developer and TV star from New York with a flair for insulting people. The other is an often grumpy U.S. senator from Vermont who calls himself a socialist. They have little in common except this: They’ve both surprisingly surged in the polls in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Donald Trump, famous for his luxury hotels and for firing people on
The Apprentice, has been leading a pack of 16 Republican candidates that includes seasoned politicians like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. 

On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders, who until recently was little known nationally, is leading
former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in some polls in early voting states. 

Though Trump and Sanders are on opposite sides of the political spectrum—Trump is conservative and Sanders is so liberal that he doesn’t even refer to himself as a Democrat*—they are both benefiting from serious voter discontent.  

According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, only 3 in 10 Americans believe that their views are represented in Washington. Confidence in institutions like schools, banks, and churches is at near historic lows, according to Gallup. And in a July New York Times/CBS News poll, only 27 percent of Americans said the nation is on the right track.

Many Americans also complain that politics has become too scripted, with carefully constructed sound bites for cable news and social media. The unrehearsed quality that both Trump and Sanders have brought to the campaign is seen as a breath of fresh air by some voters.

Trump seems to say whatever pops into his head, picking fights with journalists and referring to Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. Sanders talks of starting a revolution against the political establishment and the rich, and he snaps at reporters who ask questions he considers frivolous. 

“They are both blunt and forthright; they do not appear as practiced and smooth as other candidates,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “Americans traditionally have always loved candidates who are ‘unbought and unbossed,’ as the saying goes.”

Portland, Oregon: Sanders drew a crowd of 28,000 in August.
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Portland, Oregon: Sanders drew a crowd of 28,000 in August.

CREDIT: Ken Hawkins/ZUMA Press/Corbis

‘Anchor Babies’ & Billionaires

In all the fascination about the two candidates, their actual positions on issues often get lost. Trump has gotten the most attention for his views on illegal immigration: He wants to deport undocumented immigrants and end birthright citizenship, which under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution makes any child born in the U.S. an American citizen. He’s spoken out against children sometimes referred to as “anchor babies,” whose undocumented mothers give birth in the U.S., automatically giving their kids citizenship. 

“We have to stop what’s happening to our country—because we’re losing our country,” Trump said of illegal immigration.

Sanders has centered his candidacy around income inequality and has promised to raise taxes on the wealthy to make public colleges free. 

“This campaign is sending a message to the billionaire class: Yes, we have the guts to take you on,” Sanders told a crowd in Portland, Oregon.

Trump has never held public office. Sanders, despite presenting himself as an outsider, has been in politics for more than 30 years—first as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, then as the state’s sole congressman, and since 2007 as a U.S. senator. 

The phenomenon of upstart candidates is nothing new. In the 2012 election, pizza magnate Herman Cain and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann had early success among Republicans in the polls but fizzled quickly once the voting began. And this year, Trump and Sanders aren’t the only insurgents: Republican Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon mounting his first political campaign, has also been climbing in the polls.

Some say the length of America’s election cycle—about two years, much longer than in many other democracies—allows time for unorthodox candidates to gain a foothold. While critics argue that the lengthy process is a waste of time and money, others think it gives Americans a chance to see how candidates respond to pressure.

“People take these campaigns as an opportunity to lift up the hood and kick the tires,” says Mo Elleithee, director of the Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing that different people emerge as the front-runner at different points in the campaign.”

Many experts thought Trump’s campaign would falter quickly, but so far his support has remained strong. Still, with four months to go before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in February kick off voting, the more-establishment candidates like Clinton and Bush are hoping that early surges in the polls won’t translate into actual votes. 

Jill Lawrence, a political columnist, says that picking a presidential candidate is a bit like finding someone to marry: Voters might flirt with a candidate who’s more extreme, “but they end up settling on someone who’s more middle-of-the-road and stable.”

But that doesn’t mean that out-of-the-box candidates don’t have an important role to play. They can shift the focus of the debate and draw attention to issues. And they can change the nature of the campaigns.

“Even if he doesn’t win,” Jan Mannarino, a retired teacher from Michigan, says of Trump, “he’s teaching other politicians to stop being politicians.”

*Democratic National Committee rules permit someone who is not a registered Democrat to run for the Democratic nomination, as long as his or her beliefs align with Party principles. Sanders, an Independent, caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate.

New Hampshire Poll Numbers

Republicans

Donald Trump 28%

John Kasich 12%

Ben Carson 11%

Democrats

Bernie Sanders 41%

Hillary Clinton 32%

Joe Biden* 16%

*As of press time, Joe Biden was not a declared candidate.

SOURCE: NBC/Marist poll, conducted 8/26-9/2
With reporting by Michael Barbaro, Nate Cohn, and Jeremy W. Peters of The Times.

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