James Carville, a strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, was right that American voters that year cared more about the economy than any other issue and reminded campaign staffers of this ad nauseum. It worked, a pliant media fell in love with Bubba, and the rest is history.
So far this election cycle, no single issue or ideology seems to matter as much as personalities and old-fashioned “populism.”
Bernie Sanders seems to think that “breaking up the big banks” will fix every problem in America. On most issues, Hillary Clinton is unwilling to go as far left as Sanders, but that’s a secondary problem for her. Clinton’s real concern, aside from the fact she is a lousy, sometimes cringe-worthy retail politician, is that voters are sick of the Clintons and political dynasties. The possibility of an indictment, of all things, just underscores their reservations.
By contrast, Sanders is a new face to a lot of voters, and unlike Clinton he seems unscripted and authentic. A lot of his appeal comes from the fact he doesn’t seem to care whether anyone likes him, and his “us against them” populist talking points are hitting the right nerves. At least for now, his “political revolution” is gathering steam, against all odds.
In a lot of ways, the GOP field is seeing the same dynamic. Jeb Bush personifies the GOP establishment and has been pummeled, and like Clinton he’s the victim of a worn-out family brand and bad retail politicking. But that doesn’t explain why conservatives are holding their nose to support Donald Trump. If they wanted a principled conservative, they wouldn’t be support him, they’d support Cruz or Carson; if they wanted a polished politician, they’d support Rubio. But voters don’t seem to care that much about these things. GOP voters see Trump as an “outsider” who can actually relate to the working class and like Sanders talks a lot about “us versus them.” Books and dissertations will be written about why voters believe this about a consummate, rich-kid-gets-richer, New York City real estate tycoon, but in the meantime Trump the billionaire is a populist hero for a lot of GOP voters.
Assuming any of this is true, it will be fun to watch Clinton, Rubio, Cruz, and others test out the populist waters. For some of them, it won’t be pretty.