Very Improbable Candidates

Porter Gifford/Corbis
Bernie Sanders campaigning in Littleton, New Hampshire, August 2015

It is the season, we are told, of the outsider. The people are fed up with politics and politicians and both parties (usually enunciated “both parties,” lest the talking head in question be thought to mean only the Republicans, thus laying herself open to charges of liberal bias). Just look at how the establishment candidates are floundering.1 It’s the outsiders and nonpoliticians who are thriving. This proves that…well, that people are sick of the status quo and the dysfunction and want someone who can shake the system to its roots, or something.

Certainly, there is some truth to this, especially on the Republican side, where the three candidates who’ve never held office—Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina—have for some time now combined for more than 50 percent in most polls. And on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders now clearly presents a far more potent challenge to Hillary Clinton than most people thought he would three months ago. But like most pieces of Beltway conventional wisdom, this observation is a bit on the superficial side. Lumping Sanders together with Trump, Carson, and Fiorina obscures an important distinction between them, and between the liberal and conservative voters backing them and the nature of each group’s dissatisfaction with business as usual.

Sanders is not an outsider in the same sense that the three Republicans are. He has served in Congress since 1990. A man who’s been an elected representative for a quarter-century and who first ran for the Senate in 1972 can’t quite be thought of as an outsider, even if he is a socialist. Sanders, who also spent the 1980s as mayor of Burlington and ran unsuccessfully for governor two times, is a professional politician and has been for most of his adult life. The Republican troika, in contrast, truly are political neophytes—none has even run for office before, with the exception of Fiorina’s unsuccessful 2010 race for the Senate in California, when Barbara Boxer trounced her by ten points.

This distinction makes the point. When Sanders’s loyalists celebrate his outsiderness, they are celebrating his ideology. His statements are often outside mainstream political thinking and he makes utterly no apology about it. This is what they love about him. They love the blunt talk, delivered in that serrated Brooklyn accent that nearly a half-century spent living in Vermont has somehow done nothing to dull. But it’s his positions that have made him a contender in this race.

On the right, however, the allure is much more firmly rooted in the candidates’ biographies. What makes Trump, Carson, and Fiorina attractive to Republican voters is not chiefly their positions. Indeed, Trump rose to the top of the polls precisely while various media outlets were reporting that he believed Bill Clinton to be the best recent president and that he’d once…

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