The anti-establishment wave that swept through New Hampshire and now approaches South Carolina threatens to upend the structure of both political parties, who must now decide how to handle a reality TV star and a democratic socialist as their potential standard-bearers.
“I think the parties on both sides are being hijacked right now,” said Democratic operative Scott Ferson. “The difference is I think this is a friendly hijacking on the Democratic side. … The Republican party is standing on the side of the road stripped down to their underwear without their car keys.”
Party leaders on both sides are struggling over how to deal with the soaring popularity of the two outsiders against more establishment candidates with more extensive histories in the party, such as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. A move to stop either candidate by the party could alienate millions of voters who have embraced the outsider theme and make both parties look woefully out of touch.
But Ferson added that Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 22-point victory over Clinton in New Hampshire was a forceful rejection of the former secretary of state and revealed her more traditional message is failing to connect with large swaths of Democrats.
“That’s why I think we have to be careful,” Ferson said. “We have to take the populist feelings of the Democratic party seriously, and that means the rhetoric that Bernie Sanders is resonating has to show up in the way the Democratic party conducts itself, either in the party platform, in the positions of the nominee, or the legislation that Democrats are backing in Washington.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are also feeling powerless over the party’s destiny, as billionaire Donald Trump continues to break the conventional rules of campaigning — and soars in popularity. But many worry Trump is alienating voters he’ll need in a general election if he becomes the nominee.
“When Donald Trump drops the ‘p’ word during his speech, that is not going to do well with women,” said Florida-based GOP consultant Alex Patton, referencing Trump repeating a vulgarity a supporter shouted at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H., during a slur of Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. “I do think, when you look at what Donald Trump is doing and when you lay out the numbers and demographics, what he’s doing is harmful.”
Trump thanked Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee during his acceptance speech Tuesday night — just days after blaming the RNC for allegedly stacking the audience of Saturday’s GOP debate at Saint Anselm College with high-rolling party donors.
That’s the kind of rocky and fickle relationship Trump and the RNC have had this campaign, but Patton conceded there’s little the party can do to intervene in Trump’s success.
“Whatever party power existed has been stripped away by super PACs,” said Patton. “These guys have their own independent resources. The parties are probably about as weak as they’ve ever been.”
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