A tale of two insurgents:  Why Trump is winning and Sanders is losing

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Donald Trump. Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, some rights reserved, and Senator Bernie Sanders. Photo: U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders

Why Trump is winning and Sanders is losing

In this ferocious political year, it’s open season on the Establishment. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are basically dining out on the idea that the GOP’s party bosses are corrupt thugs who’ve betrayed the conservative movement. Cruz draws big applause whenever he jabs at the Republican “cartel” in Washington DC.

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, fired off a Facebook salvo after his close second-place finish in Nevada, arguing that his voters had “sent a message that will stun the political and financial establishment of this country.” Sanders and many of his core supporters have embraced the idea that the Democratic Party is a venal, corrupt organization.

My in-box is filled with messages from Bernie boosters arguing that Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schulz is a lying cheat who should be fired. Writing in Salon, Camille Paglia argued that Hillary Clinton is a candidate who symbolizes “the corrupt marriage of big money and machine politics, practiced by the Clintons with the zest of Boss Tweed.”

The problem for Sanders and his supporters, as primary voters go to the polls on this Super Tuesday, is that this kind of agitas against the Democratic Party just doesn’t resonate in the same way that attacks on the GOP have done. In fact, it’s mostly fallen flat.

In 2016, Republicans really are different

Hard-core conservatives are a breed apart in this political cycle. They’re seriously furious, and in some cases openly militant, about what they perceive as the Republican Party’s failure to derail the Obama presidency. They’ve spent half a decade rallying around banners — the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, Glenn Beck and on and on — hoisted by political operatives who think the GOP can’t be trusted.

Which means the Republican Party limped into this election cycle with a target already on its back, with approval ratings of 33 percent and disapproval ratings at 53 percent. Think about that for a second. One of our two major political parties entering a presidential election year twenty points underwater. To sink that low, a lot of your own people have to be stampeding toward the exit.

But the Democratic Party is in a very different place, and here’s where Sanders’ message — and the rage of pundits like Paglia — hits a brick wall. The Democratic Party has approval ratings of 40 percent and disapproval ratings of 48 percent. Still underwater, to be sure, but the vast majority of that loathing comes from the other side of the aisle, from conservatives and not from within the Democratic Party’s base.

Liberals, generally speaking, think their party is pretty okay. After all, it’s the institution that gave them Barack Obama. It’s the party who gave America Bill Clinton, who despite years of late-night comedy routines about his libido still boasts a favorability rating of 53 percent and who is consistently counted by Americans among the top-10 presidents of all time. (He’s currently ranked number eight, one slot behind Eisenhower and three slots ahead of Reagan.)

The Democratic establishment still has a meaningful brand

It gets worse for Sanders. While the center-right GOP establishment has struggled since the Reagan years to explain its role in America’s increasingly polarized debate, the center-left Democratic Party faces no comparable identity crisis. On the contrary, for generations of African American and Latino voters, in particular, the Democratic Party has been the single most essential institution, elevating their political leaders to positions of serious power and advocating for causes seen as vital by those slices of the American demographic.

Granted, all of these groups and leaders regularly express frustration and impatience with the Democratic leadership and its frequent blunders. But when Sanders blasts “the establishment,” he’s blasting an institution that has deep roots in black churches, in union halls, and among Hispanics activists. There simply isn’t any evidence that any of these constituencies see 2016 as the moment when they’re willing to reject the Democratic Party in the way that conservatives are rejecting the Republican Party.

It’s not only blacks and Hispanics who are sticking with the establishment. It’s also many LGBT activists and women’s rights groups and organizations that fight for legal abortion services and environmental organizations like the League of Conservation Voters. By overwhelming margins, they’re siding with Hillary Clinton. So too are some of the left’s biggest names, iconic figures like Al Franken and Howard Dean.

What’s clear, of course, is that Sanders has tapped into the one constituency on the left that is willing to draw a line in the sand, that thinks it’s time to cut the Democratic establishment loose. That’s the group of mostly white, mostly liberal voters who see economic inequality, campaign finance reform, and Wall Street crookedness as the defining issues of our times.

The “Big Short” crowd won’t carry the primary

For these folks — call them the “Big Short” crowd — the Democratic leadership, including President Obama, has failed. They’re a bunch of collaborators and appeasers who keep taking bankers’ campaign cash, inviting Wall Streeters to serve in their cabinets, while refusing to indict traders who break the law. These are valid concerns. And for voters who see these as the top issues, Sanders’ message is pitch-perfect.

But for African Americans fighting for voting rights in the South? For gay people fighting for marriage equality? For women trying to keep Planned Parenthood clinics open in red states or Hispanics and Latinos fighting for immigration reform? For these groups, questions about dirty money and shady political influence don’t count among the top tier issues.

So for now at least, Donald Trump will continue to build big wins around his followers’ gut-level loathing of the country-club Republican Party. But to catch Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sanders task is more complex, more challenging, and maybe flat-out impossible. He has to promise a revolution to his feisty base, while also showing at least some affection and respect for a Democratic Party that a clear majority of left-leaning voters still see as their natural political home.

19 Comments on “A tale of two insurgents:  Why Trump is winning and Sanders is losing”

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  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    One more point on Bernie, there is huge, huge I say, affection for Bernie across the Democratic base and even among many Republicans. While many will not end up voting for Bernie they still respect him for his life of principled work on the side of the people. That sort of respect and affection isn’t present on the Republican side for any candidate.

    For Hillary there is a split. Many love her and respect her, some don’t feel the love but still respect her for her own lifetime of work promoting the causes of working people, the poor, women, and minorities – along with her powerful resume of accomplishment. There just isn’t a lot of hate on the Dem side, in this cycle it is the party of mutual respect and admiration even with the differences.

    Dems see the light at the end of the Hate Obama Obstructionist Republican Antagonism Years (HOORAY). With a win in this cycle Democrats have the chance to re-make American Democracy for the next generation or more. With a Dem in the Oval Office and a newly minted Supreme Court the will of ordinary people will have a fighting chance against corporate power.

  2. telfish says:

    What is driving Trumps campaign is not only anger at the establishment.

    As this weekends flap over the Duke endorsement and The KKK/White supremacist support shows the other main driver of right wingers to Trump is Race. And the GOP has only themselves to blame. For years they have been blowing the dog whistle, only for a guy to come along with a foghorn!

  3. Walter F. Wouk says:


  4. nelson says:

    The surge of Trump is because he represents the fundamental values of the U.S., that the free enterprise system is alive and well.
    The real issue is not Trump, but the media, can a free country little note or long remember a media as biased as the three major networks, NBC,CBS and ABC plus Fox, they poison the environment with their endless self indulgence of saying what they want rather than the unbiased facts.
    The vilification of those other than the minorities that now see themselves as the future even with no idea of how to make a living.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    I could vote for Bernie but not for Clinton.
    I could vote for Trump if it came down to Trump or Clinton for the same reason I could vote for Bernie.
    I see Bernie and Trump running for the President of the United States of America.
    I see Clinton running for President of One World Government.

  6. Brian MOFYC says:

    The difference is that Trump is the monster the GOP establishment have spent the last 40 years enabling. Sanders is what the Dem establishment have spent the last 40 years trying to suppress.

  7. Brian MOFYC says:

    “The surge of Trump is because he represents the fundamental values of the U.S”

    Indeed. Anyone can be successful if they are born super-rich, declare bankruptcy several times and then use both to convince people that you are a “winner” but one who identifies with the common man. God bless “free enterprise.”

    This sort of hucksterism is, as nelson suggests, as American as apple pie.

  8. alan snedeker says:

    The government is corrupt and we all know it…and we pay the rich and famous because of it. Greed wins with this bunch and Bernie knows it, and his call for a revolution is serious. Hillary doesn’t speak the same talk….and that’s my problem with her. How can Blacks go for her when he was a CORE member in college? Blame the media, controlled by big corporations for all of that.
    They lie and avoid all day long…and we see it and we know it and it’s wrong. They should NOT BE be owned by anyone BUT a media company NOT owned by one man like Murdoch. It’s all a mess…..and Bernie gives some of us hope. Hillary is more of the same….but thankfully not as incredibly bad as any Republican candidate. What is astonishing is the number of people who want Trump BUT have no curiosity on his failures… all listed with laughs by John Oliver. (We do not need what happened to Germany…but those who like Trump would have it his way…a very bad way.) Do watch John Oliver…it’s hilarious! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnpO_RTSNmQ

  9. telfish says:

    In the scenario that appears most likely to emerge from the primary contests, Clinton tops Trump 52% to 44% among registered voters. That result has tilted in Clinton’s favor since the last CNN/ORC Poll on the match-up in January.


    Sanders — who enjoys the most positive favorable rating of any presidential candidate in the field, according to the poll — tops all three Republicans by wide margins: 57% to 40% against Cruz, 55% to 43% against Trump, and 53% to 45% against Rubio. Sanders fares better than Clinton in each match-up among men, younger voters and independents.

    Trump seems to be toast, white of course.

  10. Terence says:

    Interesting analysis. More than ever this election year, I notice the breakdown in civil disagreement. Maybe the two lowest points for me so far have been:

    –The descent into name-calling and interrupting from the last GOP debate, really painful to watch. Not because I clutch my pearls when people insult each other, but because it’s like watching people fight over where the deck chairs should go as the ship is taking on water.

    –The refusal by Senate Republicans to even meet any possible nominee to replace Scalia. Over the last few years, there’s been an increase in the use of parliamentary maneuvers to shut down the government. This is really troubling.

    And, obviously, we should all be concerned that demonizing the opponent / whole groups of people is still a viable vote-winning strategy for presidential candidates.

  11. Jeff says:

    Brian’s thoughts seem to be on the mark.

    Both efforts are telling for they at least seem to show the parties themselves have less say(or choose to hold back) in who wants to run for office under their banner. One man who has not been allied with the democrat party in his senatorial career and another who is just short of using 4 letter words in every speech(maybe he does but I don’t hear the whole of any of his speeches) but whose personal attacks should draw as much opposition as any black lives matter march but such opposition is not reflected in his support or in substantial objection by the party. Of course the recent Oscar program shows how low our country has fallen in civil speech and the advertisers are following along.

    I’m wondering if Trump’s support is similar to Obama’s first run for office. A determined group support a candidate who is politically clean enough and doctrinally satisfactory to make the effort to run for office. I think in Trump’s case the voters don’t see someone who is an electable leader so is it a vote for “whatever” if they even choose to vote. That is not to say Trump doesn’t have advocates.

    By the way BRIAN MYFOC, bankruptcy is a legal process, and I know it often hurts investors and employees and retirees who don’t get paid, but it also is telling for someone to recover from the process… I have not studied Trump but why not critique someone for getting paid a quarter of a million dollars for a “speech.” No speech is worth a tenth of that. The investors of those companies should complain.

  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Not to speak for B MYFOC, but just to explore the idea of bankruptcy in the Free Market philosophy there was a time long long ago when kings and potentates would declare all debts null and void either on special occasions or even on a schedule, every 20 years for instance.

  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Sorry, posted before done.
    As I was saying, that was a time when people could fall into debt slavery, a sort of free market that rulers found troubling. Later people could be thrown into prison for failure to pay a debt or sent to a prison colony. That was a real free market, but not the kind of freedom we consider proper anymore.

    It is a mistake to confuse legal and political actions and remedies with a free market. Manipulating the legal system to your own advantage because you are rich and powerful is the sort of thing many Trump supporters decry. I don’t really try to understand their logic.

  14. Jeff says:

    Knuck, I was not addressing the circumstances of Trump’s bankruptcy’s but that a premise that there is automatically fault or poor character or deception or questionable practice in having gone through bankruptcy is wrong. There may be questionable issues for Trump but just the label is not cause and without support a worthless remark. We’re told 95% of restaurant start-ups fail. Many go into bankruptcy. A dream failed but it does not necessary reflect a questionable character.

  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Fair enough, but I think there is a distinction to be made between ordinary people of limited means dreaming of building a small business and someone of inherited wealth who has advantages few others can muster. I believe there is a question of moral character. What is legal, what is ethical, what is moral?

    In my experience many people who might qualify for Food Stamps (SNAP), for example, refuse to accept that benefit because of their own moral principles. It would be perfectly moral, perfectly ethical for them to accept that or other benefits but they refuse.

    Trump might say he is protecting investors, or jobs, or economic benefit to a city in using the bankruptcy courts but his use of bankruptcy still brings up questions of his leadership skills, ability to create a solid business plan, and ability to manage money. The same sort of things I hear conservatives complain about when they talk about people on welfare.

  16. Pete Klein says:

    Everyone made fun of Reagan when he ran for President and GOP leaders tried to stop him.
    There are more similarities between Reagan and Trump than most are willing to admit or see.
    If it comes down to a race between Clinton and Trump, you could see Trump stealing enough Democrats to beat Clinton.
    I am certain Trump would take upstate NY.

  17. Mitch Edelstein says:


    Reagan was Governor of California, he had served in the US Army during World War 2. He had political experience working with large budgets, legislation, Mayors of large cities. Trump is a promoter, a brilliant media manipulator and will certainly do anything to gain power. He will certainly modify his “positions” after he gets the nomination. Does anyone believe that he will be ready to walk into the Oval Office and be prepared to handle the job of leading the military, economy and security of the nation? I’m no fan of Ronald Reagan, but he was as qualified to be considered as most of our Presidents.

  18. Greg says:

    Feel The Bern!!

  19. Jeff says:

    Pete, I’m not one to feel bad about voting for myself, again. Beside the fact what when we get the opportunity the case is often closed. I’ll take a page from Mark Twain and say that I may not attend Donald Trump’s political funeral but I would favor it… and prefer that those who whole-heartedly support him, Christie and the whole shebang, stop parking their brains in the waste basket and try using their gray matter. People are giving Trump the same reaction that would take place if an open copy of Playboy was dragged through a men’s locker room. Whoa, look at that! He has no substance, two dimensional. He’s an image with ideas in the minds of the observers, not his own.

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