On September 26, Monday Night Football viewership was at its lowest in the last quarter-century as the eyes of the nation were tuned into another entertaining contest on most national news networks. In the last few months, phrases such as “braggadocious” and “big league” have experienced multifold increases in the number of online dictionary searches. And over the course of the past year, a good portion of the American population has been joking nervously about the possibility of a mass exodus.
See a trend? Hopefully so—across the globe, people had their eyes and ears affixed to the 17-candidate hodgepodge, the revolutionary “Bern,” and the historic nature of this “absolutely yuuuuuuge” American presidential election cycle that seemed to start before the results of the last election had even set in. Now, with the election done, we’re at a point of reflection about how, in this campaign, several candidates, not given much of a shot by most pundits, managed to capture so many disenfranchised and downtrodden voters. What was it about their candidacies and messages that inspired millions and revolutionized the way we think about presidential politics?
“We’ve seen strains of [the type of appeals in this election] before, but 2016 takes it to a whole new level,” said Ann Compton, former ABC News White House correspondent, to the HPR before the election. “This year, American voters who are following Donald Trump don’t care about [policy or implementation] details. They are inspired and encouraged by his broad promise to make the country great, to bring jobs home, and to make the future full of hope.”
In an interview with the HPR, David Kochel, senior strategist to the Jeb Bush campaign, elaborated: “Trump approached this campaign like it was a television market that he could dominate with his particular skill at creating controversy … and fifth-grade taunting. If you’re in reality TV, you understand that you get your show renewed next year by dumping over the dining room table and throwing a beer in somebody’s face.”
On the other side of the aisle, Bernie Sanders carried a vision of a more egalitarian America that gained him the support of millions of voters. Sanders’ message of radical change to a system he described as broken and corrupt rallied people to the left of the spectrum who desperately wanted to see change. As a result of his uniquely uncompromising nature as well as the fact that until the election cycle, he had never been affiliated with the Democratic Party, Sanders was pegged as a newcomer to establishment politics from the very beginning. In this way, despite their many other differences, both Trump and Sanders were alike. Both were deemed inspirational outsiders by their supporters, populist parvenus by their enemies. Both appealed to their growing rallies with messages of promise for a better America that represented fresh alternatives to what establishment candidates had been spouting for years. And when Sanders conceded the Democratic nomination, a considerable portion of his voters pledged their allegiance to Trump, a man who seemingly stood for everything Sanders was fighting against.
This raises the question: which types of voters were willing to go so far as to leave the safety of traditional party lines in order to choose between the two extremes of the charming revolutionary man of the people and the elite, masculine Wall Street mogul? Trump and Sanders’ messages attracted voters from a variety of backgrounds, including a few surprising groups. For example, the LGBTQ community has constituted an important minority voter base for many years, and considering last year’s national ruling to legalize gay marriage, no election cycle has seen a greater emphasis on attracting voters from the LGBTQ community than the current one.
“Even though we are [between] 4 [and] 10 percent of the population,” prominent AIDS and LGBTQ rights activist Peter Staley told the HPR, “we had an outsized sway over both Hillary and Bernie’s campaigns as far as how they competed for our votes and how we could … play them off each other in exchange for our community’s support.”
This information by itself may not be all that surprising; every election, it is almost inevitable that the Democratic Party wins the LGBTQ vote and therefore not shocking to see two candidates in the Democratic primaries fight for the backing of LGBTQ voters. However, Staley’s pre-election prediction was startling.
“We even saw attempts by the Trump campaign to appeal to LGBTQ voters, with modest success. It won’t surprise me if Trump ends up with 20 percent of the LGBTQ vote.”
Indeed, a New York Times exit poll revealed that Trump won 14 percent of the LGBTQ vote. How could Trump draw so many from this community when he has openly claimed to not “feel right about” marriage equality? Staley attributes this to Trump’s tendency to waver on a variety of political issues and make seemingly self-contradictory statements. For example, Staley brought up Trump’s reference to the LGBTQ community at the Republican National Convention.
“Trump thanked the convention hall for applauding the reference … He also let billionaire gay supporter [Peter Thiel] announce from the stage that he was a proud gay American—first time that’s happened at a Republican Convention. But if you examine his policies and his vice presidential candidate, he would be a disaster for LGBTQ Americans.”
It is apparent, then, that Trump’s appeal to LGBTQ voters does not relate to how he might make this country great again for them. His convention speech was, as Staley put it, “tokenish” and not representative of how his administration would actually treat the LGBTQ community. When asked why they support Trump, especially in the face of his anti-marriage equality comments, LGBTQ supporters have tended to cite what they consider greater threats—such as Islamic terrorism and the increasingly hyper-liberal nature of young America—that only Trump can resolve. This suggests that LGBTQ Trump voters are supporting him for his personal characteristics and his response to particular issues while rationalizing the parts of his candidacy that seem to contradict some of their ideals.
Meanwhile, Sanders benefitted greatly from the support of millennial Americans. The very fact that the oldest candidate in the nomination process had the strongest appeal to the youngest voters is an accomplishment. Though his policy proposals, particularly his plan to make college debt-free, connected with younger voters, they alone did not carry him to such a landslide victory among millennials. Indeed, it was Sanders’ online presence that helped earn his campaign a mass Internet following and popularity among young people across the country.
“[Sanders’] message had an echo effect across cyberspace,” explained Compton. “He made good advantage of the tools that allow an underdog to seize a national megaphone.”
Though this election cycle featured a woman as the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, a surprisingly high proportion of Sanders’ young voters were female. In fact, while women of every age group other than millennials preferred Clinton to Sanders, among women between 18 and 29, Sanders had more than twice as much support as the eventual nominee. Striking at first, this dichotomy makes sense in the context of millennial women’s independent attitudes regarding feminism and female representation.
“Hillary and Democrats for years tried to weaponize feminism as a way to score political points,” Sarah Isgur Flores, deputy campaign manager of the Carly for President campaign, told the HPR. “It backfired in a big way [during the primaries] and more than two-thirds of young women ended up rejecting the label in favor of a more individualized idea of female empowerment.”
Sanders also gathered mass youth support through his extremely optimistic messages and promises for a better future. Though many pundits criticized his campaign as idyllic and impractical, his message certainly roused millions of young voters.
“Bernie Sanders is promising free college, free healthcare, free puppies on every corner,” said Isgur Flores. “Clinton had always beaten Republicans by promising more than they did, and then, when she got into this race, she got outflanked by someone on the left overpromising her.”
The popularity of Sanders’ message of hope and reform can be explained by the results of the Harvard Public Opinion Project’s fall 2016 survey of young Americans. Forty-nine percent of survey respondents thought that the country was headed in the wrong direction, and 53 percent held an unfavorable view of Hillary Clinton. Fifty-three percent disapproved of the Democrats’ recent performance in Congress, and 51 percent reported being more fearful than hopeful about the future of America.
This data indicates a demoralized American youth and furthers the argument that young liberals in the United States feel pessimistic about establishment politics, shedding light on the popularity of Senator Sanders’s outsider message.
“Sanders got a group of voters who felt left behind by the political system,” said Isgur Flores, “regardless of whether the economy had left them behind or something else. Bernie did a very good job of creating that movement feeling for them that they clearly rallied around.”
This contingent of voters supported candidates like Trump or Sanders not necessarily because they were on the same part of the ideological spectrum but rather because they wished to protest against establishment politics. Many Trump votes in the primaries were likely cast more against Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio than for Trump. Often, supporters of Sanders and Trump were more anti-Hillary than pro-Bernie or pro-Donald.
“It’s not that I love Trump,” Brett Grommesh, a Trump voter at North Dakota State University, told the HPR. “But [he was] definitely the lesser of two evils.”
In an interview with the HPR, Harrison Hawes, a student at Baylor University, presented a similar frustration with Clinton. “At first, I was a Sanders supporter mostly because of my friends and the Internet movement. The more I think about it, the election was stolen from Bernie by Hillary. Hillary doesn’t seem to care about the issues, and she seems to say whatever will get her elected.”
With Sanders out of the race, Hawes began to hope for a Trump victory.
“I like the fact that Trump is … not a career politician,” said Hawes. “He definitely was an underdog in this election, and I think the system seemed to be against him in the same way that it was against Bernie.”
Clearly, millions of Americans agreed with Grommesh and Hawes. In a stunning outcome, Trump decisively won the electoral college and became the nation’s 45th president-elect. The upset came as a blindside to many in the country and around the world and reaffirmed their conviction that these results were part of a trend toward favoring outsider candidates in office.
Yet perhaps the profound question to answer from this election cycle is whether Sanders and Trump really were outsiders. Of course, both were strangers to the realm of establishment politics, but in reality, neither was at much of a political disadvantage in the context of this election. In fact, these candidates understood what people wanted more than establishment candidates did. As a result, they effectively appealed to potential voter bases and gained more undecided voters than did any establishment candidate.
“[Trump] was a master at hoarding the attention and the cameras,” said Kochel. “His experience in television and self-promotion gave him a very good understanding of how to manipulate the media and keep the focus on him.”
Isgur Flores pointed out how this aspect of these non-establishment candidates strengthened their ability to empathize with the common man. “[Trump and Sanders] voters felt like their candidates were vehicles for their respective movements. [Winning votes] often comes down to who you want to get a beer with. In the exit polls for 2012, Romney won ‘Who is going to be better for the economy?’ by 20 points but lost ‘Who cares about people like me?’ by 20 points, and he lost the election. So what matters more: the policy proposals or the emotional appeal?”
Trump will not be a one-hit wonder, and by following his model, future candidates will likely come down from their ivory towers and develop stronger emotional appeals off of the struggles and desires of the American people. Through whatever means, voters will be shown that it isn’t just candidates’ policies that are in it for them—it’s the candidates themselves.
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