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The Long, Dark Twilight of the Political Establishment

February 19, 2016, 1:00 PM UTC
Donald Trump in South Carolina
GREENVILLE, SC - FEBRUARY 15: Supporters reach out for signatures, handshakes and photos as republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets the crowd after speaking at a campaign rally held in the TD Convention Center in Greenville, SC on Monday Feb. 15, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Photograph by Jabin Botsford — The Washington Post/Getty Images

On the night of Feb. 15, the split screen that has defined the 2016 presidential race repeated itself with a new urgency. In one half there was Republican front-runner Donald Trump, rallying thousands at an arena in Greenville, S.C., with immigration jeremiads and classic rock anthems. In the other, on a stage 203 miles away in North Charleston, there was Jeb Bush, the pack leader Trump had long since deposed, making his first public appearance with his brother, former President George W. Bush. Here was Jeb, fighting for his political life in a state that had long favored his family dynasty.

This cycle, dynasty hasn’t counted for much. In the debate two days earlier, Trump viciously attacked the elder Bush’s record, marking the first time anyone can remember a GOP poll leader lacerating the party’s most recent President. Trump earned boos for the performance, but the audience in attendance—South Carolina party faithfuls—was so distant from the Republican rank and file that the question “Why are people booing?” trended on Google during the event. What’s more, the businessman’s soaring popularity statewide didn’t suffer. If Palmetto State Republicans didn’t punish that heresy against the last Republican commander in chief, it could spell the last gasp for Jeb, who finished 6th in Iowa and 4th in New Hampshire.

At a mininum, the Feb. 20 primary in South Carolina stands poised to further thin the three-way contest among Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to consolidate establishment support against Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. In the Nevada Democratic caucuses that same day, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is hustling to blunt the momentum that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders carried out of his blockbuster win in New Hampshire. But both sides are dug in for a slog that could spill into the summer.


It would be silly, seeing what we’ve seen, to make any sweeping predictions about how this race will end. In the past, advantages like money raised, endorsements, and name recognition were pretty good indicators of election outcomes. If anything, it may be working the other way this time (see chart). Bush, whose campaign was an early juggernaut, embarrassingly floundered despite smashing fundraising records (he still easily retains the money lead, with $150 million raised, including Super PAC funds, and $84 million spent). Clinton, with 184 endorsements from governors and members of Congress, has faced a real challenge from Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders, who got only two.

Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush Campaigns With Brother George W. Bush Former president George W. Bush, along with his wife and Sen. Lindsey Graham, campaigning for his brother, Jeb, at a Feb. 15 rally.Photograph by Daniel Acker — Bloomberg via Getty Images

The ever-looming specter of a late entry from third-party candidate Michael Bloomberg muddies the picture even more for the powers that be. But even if the party elites do get what they want and the general election features a pair of establishment-friendly candidates (say Clinton and Rubio), they stand to inherit an electorate increasingly riven along class lines as much as partisan ones. Put another way, Trump (and Sanders) may fade this spring, but Trumpism is likely to stick around for a while.

Some recent polling explains why. A solid majority of Americans, 54%, now think the country’s economic and political systems are “stacked against them,” and that number has been climbing over the past five years, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC survey. In the same study, nearly seven in 10 Americans describe themselves as angry that government “seems only to be working for those with money and power, like those in Washington or on Wall Street,” rather than everyday people. The public is so cynical about elected officials, 55% believe “ordinary Americans” would do a better job solving big problems, a Pew Research Center poll found.


“There’s so much anger out there on both sides, successful candidates will need to channel it,” says Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt.

And that suggests the next White House occupant will have a tough time, if he or she is even so inclined, advancing corporate priorities like freer trade and comprehensive immigration reform. Trump and Sanders, the two candidates consistently drawing the biggest crowds, are working off a common roster of C-suite bogeymen: price-gouging drug companies, executives moving factories abroad, and billionaire speculators on Wall Street gambling with other people’s money. That both candidates stir such deep working-class animus, across party lines, should brace Chamber of Commerce types. For business to get what it wants, it may have to make big, public concessions to the voting masses in return—if not, there are plenty of candidates waiting to do it for them. 

A version of this article appears in the March 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Does the Establishment Have a Prayer?.”