Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are now front-runner candidates, to be taken seriously and weighed accordingly.
Their strong showings demonstrate, in a way that can no longer be dismissed, that they have tapped into a deep vein of frustration with the status quo and distrust of the established order that spans the spectrum of American voters.
That is evident in the record turnout of voters in New Hampshire’s primary, which handily eclipsed the record turnout of 2008. Exit polls show that both Sanders and Trump succeeded in appealing to voters in virtually every demographic category. The established political parties bear some blame here, for being tone-deaf to the issues roiling the 95 percent — stagnating wages, a scarcity of good jobs and a future that for too many seems dimmed.
These voters have heard too many detailed proposals that never came to fruition, too many promises forgotten after Election Day. They’ve seen their heroes fall time and again to an entrenched network of money and influence that appears to march on, no matter who wins. It’s notable that this time around, they seem impervious to the wishes of Big Money. Instead, some of the candidates with the biggest bankrolls have struggled the most. If for no other reason, Trump and Sanders are owed a measure of gratitude for showing that candidates can be competitive without constant fundraisers and a continual wooing of wealthy interests.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has become the face of experience and incremental change at a time when the pent-up desire by the most engaged voters on the left for a progressive warrior may be too strong to be denied. Minnesotans demonstrated that as early as 2008, when they helped Barack Obama trounce Clinton by 34 percentage points in a split eerily similar to that of New Hampshire on Thursday. If Clinton is to regain ground, she would do well to find a more human, inclusive way to connect with younger voters, women, independents and others. One good page to borrow from Sanders: Less “I” and more “we.”
As Republicans cast around for an unconventional candidate, they may want to look at one whose résumé screams establishment, but whose message has set him apart. John Kasich spent 18 years in Congress and is in his second term as governor of all-important swing state Ohio. Alone in the field, he has staked out a defiantly optimistic message that, while conservative, leaves room for compromise and acknowledges that government can play a productive role in improving lives. At the very least, his continued presence in the race can serve to elevate the debate beyond “big, beautiful walls” and carpet-bombing the desert.
Another way to raise the level of discourse? Get involved. Campaigns are built on an elaborate set of assumptions based on previous elections and the type of voters who show up. Unconventional candidates who energize different parts of the electorate throw a wrench in those scenarios, but also present genuine opportunity for different voices to be heard.