Why are so many people interested in the 2016 US presidential election? It seems as if people are turning out in huge numbers just for the primaries. This is the first time I caucused, which is true for most of people I know, and I think it has to do with who's running. (Correct me if I'm wrong.)

Why does this election have such anti-establishment candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump? I know the news has been saying that people are fed up with the establishment, but what happened this time around specifically that 'crossed the line'? I'm thinking both about the 2008 recession, as well as how ineffective our deadlocked Congress has been. But it seems as if the economy is doing well and there are plenty of more jobs now then there were before Barack Obama took office. Are there other big picture reasons I am not seeing?

I just finished the book Team of Rivals, and the country seems as divided now as it was before the Civil War.

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    The ability of the leading anti-establishment candidates to finance their own campaigns. Mar 9, 2016 at 6:07
  • Is it really the first time we see anti-establishment candidates run for office? Or is it rather the first time they get attention?
    – Philipp
    Mar 9, 2016 at 9:24
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    There's always been anti-establishment candidates. We just have two this time around with some particular differences that let them gain a foothold.
    – user1530
    Mar 9, 2016 at 14:36
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    Yes, but the things they are saying have been true for a long time. Why is 2016 the year people actually are upset enough to do something about it?
    – sanjayr
    Mar 9, 2016 at 23:11
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    @sanjayr: The academic literature on revolutionary sentiments emphasizes that relative deprivation as the crucial factor. It's not objectively hard times but times when you expected and think you deserve better. Apr 23, 2019 at 15:26

2 Answers 2



It seems as if people are turning out in huge numbers just for the primaries

It may seem like that, but it's not entirely true. We have roughly the same turnout this year as we had in 2008. The main difference is that Democrat turnout is down relative to 2008 (and the historical average) while Republican turnout is up. Of course, 2008 was a record setting year. If you compare to other years, overall turnout looks better.

Source: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/08/so-far-turnout-in-this-years-primaries-rivals-2008-record/

A side issue is that Republican primaries are often decided by this point. Yet this year, only one candidate (Marco Rubio with 71% in Puerto Rico) has managed to win the majority of the vote in any primary. This tends to increase turnout, as these later states have more reason to vote.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republican_Party_presidential_primaries,_2016#February_2016:_Trump_wins_most_early_states


In terms of reasons why anti-establishment candidates are doing well now, remember the problems that have persisted since the Clinton administration. While ISIS has replaced Al-Qaeda, jihadist terrorism remains a persistent worry (even though 9/11 was the only successful large scale attack). Many Americans are frustrated that politicians don't seem willing to take this seriously.

There's also the ongoing deficit problem. In Barack Obama's eight years as President, the deficit spiked and is now back where it was at the end of George W. Bush's term. Debt remains stubbornly larger than GDP.

Culturally, the country is changing. Twenty-five years ago, there were still laws against homosexual acts. Now, gay marriage is a court-defended right and a prominent transsexual is being asked who is the best Republican candidate.

A substantial portion of immigration is illegal. People just walk across the border. This doesn't satisfy anyone. The people who come here illegally aren't satisfied, as they have to undergo a risky journey and can never visit home without repeating it. The people who want someone to come here legally are dissatisfied. There are so few slots remaining that there is always pent up demand. The people who don't want immigration aren't satisfied, as there is still immigration.

We've been at war since 2001. But there are few victories or achievements. We killed a terrorist leader and a new organization replaced his. We may have fewer soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it doesn't feel like we won.

While overall compensation including benefits have increased, it's been decades since wages have. Compensation has instead come in the form of increased benefits, e.g. health care. Wages have remained stagnant.

Unemployment statistics have dropped, but we haven't had the normal post-recession surge of growth that powers higher wages. We're not exactly in recession, just a sort of stagnation. Bad jobs abound while people can't find good jobs to replace them.

For eight years, there's been a black progressive as President, but there's been minimal progressive change. No universal healthcare, just expanded Medicaid and subsidized private insurance. No new taxes on the rich, just an expiration of some of the tax cuts from ten years ago. No big new infrastructure spending, just a couple years of stimulus at the depths of a recession. No break up of the big banks, just a new bailout fund and some new regulations.

For six years, Republicans have controlled the House, but no tax cuts. No regulatory cuts. No spending cuts. No entitlement reform. Even sequestration's reduction in the rate of increase has been ended. Obama was still able to reopen trade with Iran and Cuba. Foreign-supported terrorist attacks continue.

This has been building for a while. This year's explosion of candidates (twenty-two between just the two major parties) has exposed this more than previous elections did. It was probably equally true in 2012, but there was a clearer sense of it being Mitt Romney's turn then. In 2008, the comparatively anti-establishment Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton and maverick John McCain topped the Republicans. In 2000, Pat Buchanan did about as well as Trump is now, it's just that George W. Bush did better.


Or realize that they aren't doing well. Bernie Sanders continues to underperform his delegate targets. For example, he needed 75 delegates from Michigan but only got 65-72 (final count isn't released, but Hillary Clinton got at least 58 of 130). The big news there is that he didn't underperform by as much as the polls predicted that he would. And Clinton still had the expected blowout in Mississippi, so Sanders is farther away from the nomination than he was the previous day.

Donald Trump has a perceived image as an anti-establishment candidate, but until recently he was part of the establishment. I.e. when they talk about billionaires owning establishment politicians, he was one of the billionaires. As the recent New York Times leak makes clear, in private, he's telling people to ignore what he says publicly about immigration, trade, and torture. And he's not doing that well either. He's actually behind Sanders in percentage of the vote (different parties). The difference is that the more fractured Republican field leaves him as doing better than anyone else while Sanders remains in second place.

Like Sanders, Ted Cruz is a sitting Senator, so a bit of a reach as an anti-establishment candidate. He can point to a certain amount of obstruction that has effectively made Congress act more Democratic than it would have otherwise. Apparently it is anti-establishment to empower the establishment. He remains behind Trump, and continues to lose states he should be able to win (e.g. Mississippi).

Rubio has been embraced by the establishment since his anti-establishment win in 2010. He's not doing well by most measures. Although, as I said previously, he is the only Republican candidate to win the majority of the vote in any primary. He used to have a high favorable rating, but that has dropped recently.

John Kasich is the most establishment of the remaining Republican candidates. He hasn't won a single primary. So if you want to point at establishment candidates doing badly, there he is. Obviously, Jeb Bush and Martin O'Malley already dropped out.

Ben Carson has the best anti-establishment credentials of any candidate, but he dropped out without winning a primary or even making it into the top three.

Hillary Clinton is a clear establishment candidate. She's actually doing the best of any candidate in either party. She's regularly hitting her delegate targets and getting a majority of the vote. Not always, but enough that if she continues to perform at this level, she'll win the nomination.


We perceive some candidates as being anti-establishment. Why? Because that's the way that the media describes them. The leaders in both party nominations are actually quite establishment. In fact, Trump has contributed to Clinton's campaigns in the past. He has been very much a part of the political establishment. He's been running a counter-establishment campaign, but that doesn't necessarily make him anti-establishment. It just means that he wants to be perceived that way. And there hasn't been anyone with both the credibility and inclination to challenge that. Carson had the credibility, but he wasn't running a campaign based on criticizing other candidates. Bush had the inclination, but who would believe Bush complaining that Trump was too establishment.

The anti-establishment people in the media are generally pets of the establishment. The establishment media trots them out occasionally so as to laugh at the things they say. And if they do believe their own statements, they are so grateful that Trump is saying anti-establishment things that they ignore if he means them. It's only recently that Cruz has begun to pick on this. We'll see if it matters as the primaries continue.

  • It maybe helpful to point out that the 2008 primaries were happening in a unique environment. Both parties were conducting their primary debates during the TV actor's strike. Many regular shows were not making new episodes. Which gave the primary debates a very high viewership.
    – grovkin
    Apr 25, 2019 at 0:35

There are many factors contributing to what we're seeing in this election.

Why is there so much support for anti-establishment candidates this time?

  • People now are more aware of the corruption that goes own in our government. (Thanks to organizations like RootStrikers) We know that wealthy individuals and companies can donate large sums of money to lawmakers in Congress in exchange to lawmakers passing policies favorable to their donors. For example, why did Obama push for the Wall Street bailout bill that unfortunately ended up padding bonuses of leading financial execs and not helping middle-class Americans as it was intended? Obama reserved huge sums of contributions from Wall Street during his election. So unfortunately for us, he had returned the favor to them. Another example, there are oil/gas companies that donate millions of dollars to presidential candidates, Senators, and House of Representative Members to encourage them to NOT vote on green energy initiatives / cutting carbon footprint. This is why we see so many politicians here ludicrously deny climate change despite the overwhelming evidence.
  • These wealthy individuals and companies have disproportionally much stronger influence on politicians than regular working people do. It's to the point that some elected officials simply are not voting in favor of their citizens and constituents, but are voting in bills that help out their donors.
  • The middle class has been on a decline in the past 30 years or so. Now, students are graduating with massive amounts of debts and the rate of tuition increases outpaces the rate of inflation. It used to be possible in this country to easily afford college and get a degree. Now, you need to either come from a rich family to afford it or be willing to saddle yourself under thousands of dollars of debt. This is very scary to young students.
  • The minimum wage is way, way too low for the current cost of living. In some areas even if you work a fulltime 40hr/week job at minimum wage, you can still be below the federal poverty line. How can people working these jobs support themselves? If they have family, it's even harder for them and an even greater struggle.
  • Companies can treat their employees like crap and there isn't repercussions for the companies. Walmart regularly schedules workers to minimize full-time staff and maximize part-time employees so Walmart doesn't have to pay benefits to their part-time employees. Not only that, the work schedules of their part-time employees are often erratic. Maybe this week it's Monday 11am - 3pm, then Tuesday 7am - 1pm, Wednesday 3pm-6pm, etc. Then next week, their working days and hours are different! This prevents these employees who depend on these wages from getting another job and from being able to attend classes on a reschedule schedule to try to upgrade their skills and get a better job.

It basically comes down to this - Many people feel like the government has not been working in the best interest for the people in recent decades and rightfully they want that to change! "Politics as usual" hasn't been working.

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    None of these bullet points is wrong, but what makes them more of a problem in 2016 than 2012? Also, while this explains why voters are turning that way, it doesn't explain why there's so many anti-establishment candidates in the mix. Why wasn't there an anti-establishment turn four years ago? Have things gotten worse?
    – Bobson
    Mar 9, 2016 at 19:52
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    At least one bullet is wrong, a 40hr/wk job earns $15,080 which is more than the poverty level in the 48 states, Alaska, and Hawaii. So these people could support themselves, and if they have a family with two people working they could also support their family.
    – user1873
    Mar 9, 2016 at 23:14

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