BEAUFORT, S.C. – Crystal Medina wants a president with real “backbone.” Bob Jacobs is pushing for a candidate who “isn’t beholden to many, many others.” Gerri Drain wants someone she can trust. And Brian Murphy is looking for anybody but the typical politician.
All four South Carolina voters — representing different ages, backgrounds and ethnicities — are part of the seething electorate that’s pushing for radical change this year in the White House.
But two — Medina and Murphy — are backing the brash billionaire and GOP front-runner Donald Trump. And the other two — Jacobs and Drain — are supporting Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, a Wall Street foe and a self-described democratic socialist.
“Everybody is fed up,” explained Medina, a 33-year-old homemaker who saw Trump up close this week in Beaufort. “We all want something different.”
That unusual dichotomy is perhaps the story of the 2016 presidential campaign, which has seen Trump and Sanders’ populist revolutions befuddle the experts with their staying power.
Winners in New Hampshire, the two appear poised to mix up the primary process for the long haul. Polls in South Carolina show Trump comfortably leading the GOP race. And though Sanders trails well behind Hillary Clinton here, he’s joined Trump in attracting enormous crowds.
Far apart on most issues, Sanders and Trump have attracted voters who have felt left out of the political process and left behind by mainstream politicians. And while their supporters shake their heads at comparisons between the two, they don’t deny that both have struck a nerve.
“Trump is just inciting in a very destructive way what Bernie Sanders is inciting in a positive and constructive way,” said Jacobs, a 72-year-old retired physician who attended a Sanders rally this week in Charleston.
The approach from Trump and Sanders is hardly new.
Populism in the U.S. dates to the 1800s, when poor farmers and others pushed back against the nation’s power brokers. Trump’s withering treatment of illegal immigration — such as his pledge to build a giant border wall — also hearkens back to the nativist movement of years ago.
No matter the era, economic concerns tend to be the driver, experts said. So it means something when Trump touts his deal-making ability. And it resonates when Sanders rails against the “rigged economy.”
In South Carolina, the economy has in many ways recovered from the collapse of the last decade. But the “benefits of the recovery haven’t been felt all the way around,” Vinson said. The state’s median household income, for example, is still among the lowest in the nation.
Take someone such as Murphy, a 48-year-old former police officer who was injured on the job. His family gets by with help from his pension and disability benefits. After supporting “establishment” candidates for years, he said he feels like he has “nothing to lose by sending Trump up there.”
“This country has to get economically sound again,” said Murphy. “And when you listen to all the other politicians, it’s just lip service.”
But the candidates’ giant followings — featuring many people who are new to the political process — speak to something more.
It’s not that Trump and Sanders share similar views on, say, trade policy. It’s not that they both have wild hair. In places such as South Carolina, it’s certainly not that they both have New York accents.
It’s their independent streaks and what appears to be a genuine understanding of voters’ frustrations, some supporters said.
“I like his strong attitude,” said Medina, one of the Trump backers. “Everybody else is fake and sugarcoats it.”
Variations of that sentiment seemed to course through Trump’s rally in Beaufort, where event traffic nearly shut down the main bridge in town. The same happened at the Sanders rally in Charleston, where everyone from college students to retirees waited in a massive line around the block.
It remains to be seen if either Trump or Sanders can pull out the ultimate victory.
They both have fierce critics, with some attacking Trump as a dangerous demagogue and others labeling Sanders as a panderer who promises unattainable things. And their appeal has been somewhat limited demographically, with Trump attracting older white voters and Sanders young white ones.
Regardless, backers on both sides said they hope the nation’s political elite takes notice.
As one woman cheered upon entering the Sanders rally in Charleston: “It’s a revolution.”
Associated Press, New York Times photos