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Do Trump and Sanders show us the limits of money in politics?

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Among the many unexpected surprises of the 2016 campaign is the very real possibility that we could have two major party candidates with at best minimal support from wealthy donors.

Many, myself included, expected very large donors on both sides to do their usual vetting and gatekeeping function once again, keeping the field of serious candidates limited to varieties of neoliberal and supply-side economic policy acceptability.

But something weird has happened this time around. For the first time in a very long time, there are now two leading candidates — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — who are not at all what the donor classes on either side would want. Both are economic populists who see an expansive role for protectionist government and a significant entitlement state.

Which invites the question: If wealthy donors play such a powerful role in American politics, why is a Trump-Sanders race a real possibility at this point? How is that both of these candidates are approaching 40 percent of their party's potential voters without the support of the all-powerful 1 percent? Is American democracy not broken after all?

Probably three things are going on here:

  1. Trump and Sanders are uniquely attuned to the mood of the country this cycle.
  2. Sanders and Trump represent long-suppressed authentic alternatives against donor-controlled candidates.
  3. The peculiar campaign dynamics in both parties created a natural opening for Trump and Sanders.

1) Trump and Sanders are uniquely attuned to the mood of the country this cycle

The simplest explanation has become the pundits' reliable default: There's something funny with the voters this year, Chuck. They're feeling anxious economically, and they want somebody who can speak to those struggles. They seem to be fed up with Washington and want somebody who's not part of the Washington establishment.

Surely this is part of it.

As I've argued, Trump's mix of anti-immigration rhetoric and support for Social Security stakes out a very popular position, one usually ignored by Republican presidential candidates. New polling makes this clearer. And Sanders's unabashed economic populism has always been popular among core Democratic Party voters.

But "serious" major-party candidates haven't offered these positions in a long time. Or to the extent that they were offered on the right (Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Pat Buchanan), they were mixed up with religious conservatism, diluting their appeal. And to the extent that they were offered on the left (Dennis Kucinich), they were mixed up in hippy-dippy peacenik guise, also diluting their broad appeal.

2) Sanders and Trump represent long-suppressed authentic alternatives against donor-controlled candidates

When voters talk about Sanders and Trump, they tend to praise the authenticity of these candidates: They aren't afraid to say what they think. Voters also seem to like that these candidates can't be bought —that they're not beholden to anybody. They can say things off the cuff because they don't have to worry about what some rich donor is going to think.

By contrast, why does every one else seem so mealy-mouthed? Perhaps it's because everyone else speaks with one eye on the arbitrary and esoteric policy preferences of dozens of potential rich donors whom they hope to court, and one eye on what the voters might support. And often, the two eyes are looking in completely different directions.

Look at Scott Walker's collapse. Once seen as the favored horse of team Koch, he stumbled in interview after interview, as if he were looking over his shoulder to make sure he was pleasing his potential backers. The Koch brothers hate unions, so Walker tried to be the candidate of union bashing, going as far to equate public unions with ISIS. Union bashing, however, was not voters' top priority.

I could tell similar stories about Jeb Bush and particularly Hillary Clinton, each carefully trying to strategically position him or herself to somehow connect with big donors and voters, somehow staking out that shrinking overlap in the Venn diagram of acceptable compromises, and finding just the right list of poll-tested words and phrases to blur the lines. Particularly for Clinton, political campaigning feels like checking a list of boxes, trying to be all things to all people all the time. For candidates who've spent their entire political career doing this, it's no wonder they come across as calculating. They are. That's how they got to where they are.

By contrast, Trump and Sanders don't have the same needles to thread, the same circles to square, or any other clichés describing near-impossible hoops to jump through. They've both spent a lifetime being who they are, and they can continue to just do that thing they do. They're not about forging coalitions or keeping everyone happy. Maybe that lack of attention to coalition building will make them bad presidents. It probably would. But it makes them effective candidates when everyone else is doing the donors-versus-voters Janus straddle.

3) The peculiar campaign dynamics in both parties created a natural opening for Trump and Sanders

On both sides, the dynamics of competition this time around have been unusual, creating unlikely openings. For Democrats, there were too few candidates. For Republicans, there were too many.

On the Democratic side, because Clinton locked up all the key Democratic donors, she cleared the field of "serious" candidates early. But neither the voters nor the media were willing to accept a "coronation" (as many called it). With only the gruff and rumpled Sanders willing to challenge Clinton as a self-proclaimed "socialist," the one candidate who didn't care that Clinton had a lock on the donors was given more attention and airtime than anyone would have imagined.

In retrospect, it makes sense. Had other, more mainstream candidates challenged Clinton, the voters' and the media's need to see a real contest would have been satisfied, and Sanders never would have received the oxygen he got. But because the political press abhors a vacuum, Sanders got plenty of oxygen to build his fire. And it turned out that once he gained the legitimacy of being a real challenger to Clinton, his message resonated.

On the Republican side, Trump's initial launch came at a moment when the two presumed frontrunners, Bush and Walker, were both struggling in the low teens. Because it was such a crowded field, it didn't take a whole lot to earn frontrunner status. A few media stunts sufficed. And once Trump became the frontrunner, the press had to cover him. And it turned out he made such good television that the press kept covering him, and his numbers kept rising. And once he gained the legitimacy of being the frontrunner, it turned out his message actually resonated, and his lead continued to grow.

So are Trump and Sanders just flukes? Or is this the beginning of a new politics?

The nonstop media coverage and long primary season makes the presidency unique. All the coverage makes it easier for candidates to get their message out, particularly if they can find a way to fit that message to the conflict narratives that reporters love. This has been Trump's particular genius so far (witness his manufactured feud with Fox News as merely the latest maverick act of conflict generation). But Sanders has benefited as well, since a Clinton cakewalk made such a poor story.

By contrast, few House or Senate primaries ever enjoy anything near this kind of media coverage, making it harder for outsider candidates to gain the initial attention they need to build legitimacy and public support. Local media doesn't have the same resources as national media. This makes initial campaign money even more important in Senate and House races. And I suspect it will remain so, at least for now.

Also on the side of this being a fluke, perhaps Trump's success is just a product of both his celebrity and his unique personality. Trump is also a billionaire, even if his views are not what we've come to expect from the billionaire class.

And yet, both Trump and Sanders have laid out a new issue playbook, a kind of populist politics that has long been suppressed from American political debate because it doesn't get one very far in the so-called "money primary" — the high-donor fundraising gauntlet that usually takes place before anybody declares candidacy.

Sanders has also demonstrated that there are millions of people willing to part with a small chunk of money to support a socialist. He's now raised $75 million from more than a million people, mostly in modest (by campaign finance) sums.

Some of the future may depend on the candidates themselves. If Sanders is serious about his "political revolution," will he turn his attention to recruiting and supporting House and Senate candidates who share his values? If so, is the force of his personality and his network enough to propel them forward, especially if the Democratic establishment doesn't want them?

As with most presidential candidates, the follow-through on building a movement will be less passionate than the promise. But Democratic candidates like Donna Edwards, running for the Maryland Senate, and Zephyr Teachout, running for the House in New York, could, along with Elizabeth Warren, be the start of a new populist politics in the Democratic Party.

My read on Trump is that he's far more instrumental than ideological. But he's made a pretty compelling case to aspiring Republican office seekers that you can run as a nativist economic populist, thumb your nose at the big donors, and do pretty well. Will the Tea Party evolve in this direction? If so, what happens to the Koch money, which holds very much opposite positions?

My best guess is that John Judis is right and this is indeed the leading edge of what will be a shift toward populism in both parties over the next several years, which will ultimately shift the alignments of American politics. But that's an underdeveloped prediction for another post.

Still, for the moment, it's worth noting that for all that both Sanders and Trump talk about the nefarious role of wealthy donors in politics, they are the first plausible candidates in a long while not to depend on wealthy donors. Beneath this obvious irony, something big may be changing in American politics.