Does Voter Anger Explain the Success of Presidential Outsiders?

by Stuart Rothenberg September 29, 2015 · 10:58 AM EDT

Those of us who report on and analyze politics for a living have been talking ad nauseam about voters’ frustration and anger.

It’s the hot topic that presumably explains Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Bernard Sanders, as well as the problems that political veterans such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush have encountered.

But voter dissatisfaction isn’t new. The last NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll to show more respondents saying things were headed in the right direction rather than on the wrong track was conducted in January 2004, more than a decade ago.

In fact, voters’ dissatisfaction with the direction of the country probably explains why we had “change” elections in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2014, with the incumbent president’s party punished by voters.

Not surprisingly, given the electorate’s mood, pro-change and anti-establishment candidates have enjoyed some success, albeit sometimes brief, over the past dozen years, including Howard Dean, Herman Cain and dozens of tea party-backed congressional candidates.

But many establishment candidates have also won. John McCain and Mitt Romney were backed by the GOP establishment in 2008 and 2012, and Barack Obama was an incumbent who faced no challenge in his bid for re-nomination.

The long, choppy recovery that began after the 2008 recession and developing foreign policy and national security challenges undoubtedly have contributed to the public’s sour mood, as has the journalistic narrative for years about partisanship and gridlock in Washington, D.C.

So if the public has soured on politics, politicians and Washington for a number of years now, why have Americans suddenly turned to the current crop of outsiders?

After all, the current poll numbers aren’t close to being records. We’ve seen moments of greater dissatisfaction. An Oct. 17-20, 2008, NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found only 12 percent of respondents thought the country was headed in the right direction, compared with 78 percent who said it was on the wrong track. The right direction numbers also reached the teens in the second half of 2011 (19 percent in August and November, and 17 percent in October), and October 2013 (14 percent), during the government shutdown.

Of course, the sheer length of time the public has been unhappy could well have created such frustration and such a high level of exasperation with officeholders that some voters have turned to more extreme solutions, even a willingness to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

There is a new level of frustration in both parties, though Republicans and Democrats place the blame in different places, of course.

For Democrats, the inability of politicians to deal with immigration and economic inequality, combined with the rise of the tea party and GOP control of the House and Senate, has produced a sense that the country is headed off on the wrong track.

For Republicans, the Obama presidency has been a nightmare, especially given judicial decisions on same-sex marriage and health care.

But while some Democrats are flirting with an outsider such as Sanders, the independent Vermont senator, the Democratic Party has not yet experienced the Trump-Carson-Carly Fiorina anti-establishment wave that the GOP has. (Democrats have not even had their Herman Cain moment yet.)

Much more of the frustration and anger is on the Republican side, which shouldn’t be surprising given Obama’s historic presidency and everything that has happened over the past six-and-a-half years, from gays in the military and same-sex marriage to the Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal, administration policy in Syria and the president’s steps to address global climate change.

Brad Todd, a partner in the GOP consulting firm OnMessage Inc., believes the 2014 elections were a turning point for many rank-and-file Republicans — raising expectations that have not been met and creating fertile ground for outsiders and anti-establishment candidates.

He notes that Republican congressional candidates campaigned in 2014 on stopping the president, repealing his agenda and changing the country’s direction.

“After ’14 when we took over the Senate, Republican voters decided we had plenty of power and believed that we could put points on the board. But they don’t see us winning now, and they don’t see Obama losing,” Todd said.

As a result, many conservatives now believe the current GOP leadership is as much of an impediment to change as is Obama. Witness their reaction to Speaker John A. Boehner’s decision to leave Congress.

In addition to the explanation, suggests a veteran Democratic insider, the early presence of a Bush (Jeb) and a Clinton (Hillary) in the race may well have also driven home to grass-roots elements of both parties just how little has changed since the early 1990s, leading to frustration with the status quo.

“The presence of Bush and Clinton in the race may have helped create a hunger for something different — something very different,” commented the Democrat.

The growing activism on the political right has caught the attention of those on the left, who increasingly believe that the tea party offers progressives a model for becoming more relevant.

Finally, the success of outsiders this time can be explained by their particular qualities. Few true outsiders (e.g., Cain, Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes) have run in the recent past, and those politicians who have run as outsiders (e.g., Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul) have lacked broad appeal.

But Trump is a celebrity who knows how to manipulate the media, and Fiorina is a terrific debater who has become relevant because of her performance in the campaign. And Carson is a black neurosurgeon whose professional résumé and personal style are rare in Republican politics.

This is a different Republican Party with a field that is very different than in the past. Seven years of Obama have created more frustration than ever, but the past 18 months have radicalized some in the GOP grass roots. That change in mood, as well as the makeup of the two party fields, helps explain why this is such a different presidential race than in the past.