While most political pundits were interpreting the political tea leaves following the first Republican debate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders continued to upend his party at the other end of the spectrum. Over the weekend, the aging socialist drew almost 30,000 supporters to a basketball arena in Portland.
Other than the fact that they are generally hairless bipeds, there is almost no similarity between the candidacies of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Yet, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, these two improbable candidates are attracting interest and support that defies conventional political logic.
The Republican debate on Fox was watched by more than 24 million people, making it one of the highest rated shows on TV this year. Trump’s vanity show, the Celebrity Apprentice, debuted this season with just over 6 million viewers. The ratings for the GOP debate, in fact, are more in line with Sunday Night NFL games, than any other political show on TV.
Obviously, Trump’s participation in the debate was a driving factor behind the historic ratings. The GOP ought to give Trump some kind of honorary award for giving its brand a platform to appeal to so many potential voters.
Given his long-time celebrity, the Trump phenomenon is somewhat understandable. The growing grass-roots interest in Bernie Sanders is perhaps far more interesting. At the beginning of the year, few people outside Burlington, VT had heard of Sanders. Yet, he is now drawing far bigger crowds than even Barack Obama at this stage of his primary challenge to Hillary.
A new Iowa poll from PPP finds that Hillary still has a significant 27 point lead over Sanders, her nearest rival. Just a few months ago, though, her lead in the critical first state was over 50 points. This is a significant erosion, especially considering that Sanders has spent most of his campaign time traversing the country from one progressive hot-zone to another, rather than hitting the streets in Sioux Falls or Davenport.
Portland, where Sanders appeared on Sunday, is obviously a city with very deep progressive roots. In May 2008, when he was well on his way to winning the Democrat nomination, Barack Obama drew over 70,000 people to an event there. That event, though, was long after Obama had defeated Hillary in a large number of states and was marching towards the nomination.
Sanders drew almost half as many people months before the first votes have been cast and at a time he is still widely expected to lose the nomination. Sanders, also, to state the point mildly, doesn’t have the rhetorical or biographical gifts of Obama.
The Bernie and Trump show is the proverbial two-sides of the same coin. For years, political commentators have noted that people are turned off by politics. The professional political class in DC will nod knowingly when someone remarks that voters are frustrated or disenchanted with the political system.
Yet, the overwhelming majority of major party candidates for federal office, from Hillary to Jeb and everyone in between, still acts and talks as if the old political rules still apply. It would be a depressing parlor game to pick any random statement from a politician on a major issue and try to guess which candidate had said it. Their talking points seem to have come out of the same focus-grouped meat-grinder.
All summer, the political class has chortled that the Bernie and Trump phenomenons would quickly run out of steam. They were the equivalent of a primal scream from each party’s base voters.
That is probably still true. On Sunday, in Portland, though, there were 30,000 reasons to think that may not be the case.