The two-party system has been an integral feature of American politics for almost 200 years now. The parties have evolved, changed messages, and even switched sides on certain issues, but since the Jacksonian Era, there have been four (or five) contiguous "two-party systems"1 that have run American politics. However, many voters in the early primaries -- especially those who are eligible to vote for the first time in this election & those who have not voted in the past -- aren't conforming to party lines. In fact, they don't seem to care that party lines exist at all. Take this tweet, for example, from Kathleen Ronayne, an A.P. reporter covering the New Hampshire primaries:
Spoke to a voter who planned to vote Trump until he got to the polls and found out he's a registered Dem. He chose Bernie. #fitn— Kathleen Ronayne (@kronayne) February 9, 2016
That person wasn't alone: According to this CNN article, a number of independent voters in New Hampshire were "wavering between Sanders and Trump." There are two phenomena here that most people seem to be conflating (or at least, nothing I've read has bothered separating the two). The first is the resurgence of populism, and the second is the apparent demise in the importance of party lines.
Populism has been on the rise in American politics since President Obama's election. The conservative Tea Party Movement and the liberal Occupy Movement have been integral to the American political pathos of this decade. Both Senator Sanders and Mr. Trump are the candidates that represent desired change for each of these movements.
As Dan Carlin explains in his latest episode of Common Sense, this sentiment is not going anywhere, particularly if we end up with another "establishment lane" President. To paraphrase his words, people don't care about a 1º shift to the left or the right -- they want a more significant change. They feel that the only way to accomplish that is to defy the establishment and vote for these more radical candidates.
Traditional American political views held firmly to party lines: "I really like Bernie Sanders, but if he doesn't get the nomination, Hillary Clinton's still better than any of those Republicans." This voter this might characterize herself as a Democrat who has Socialist leanings. Her allegiances, by virtue of having the same or similar set of ideoligical beliefs, lay with the party. While she aligned with one candidate more closely than the other, both were still better options for her than any Republican candidate.
Today's voters don't look at things the same way. Political ideologies and party lines be damned, these voters are looking for "change". They're anti-establishment populists first and care about platforms second. These voters might say something like, "I really like Bernie Sanders, but if he doesn't get the nomination, Donald Trump is still better than any of these 'Washington insider' types."
The idea that that voters would vacillate between parties, much less two of the most extreme candidates on either side, would have been laughable in any election in living memory. But the electorate of 2016 is not like once that we've seen before.
How Americans vote
Going back to the inception of primaries in 19722, we have seen three viable or succesful non-establishment candidates. The first was George McGovern, the second was Jimmy Carter, and the third was Pat Buchanan.
George McGovern rode the wave of anti-Vietnam War support among younger voters, bolstered by the ratification of the 26th Amendment, but was portrayed as left-wing extremist and beaten by President Nixon in a landslide. Similarly, Jimmy Carter's position as a Washington outsider resonated with American voters, who were disillusioned with Washington in the aftermath of Watergate. Carter was able to use this sentiment to gain the White House but was ousted four years later, and often considered one of the most ineffectual Presidents in American history. Pat Buchanan is noteworthy because ran in an relatively open Republican field in 1996, but after an early victory in New Hampshire, the Republican establishment coalesced around Bob Dole, who ended up winning the nomination.
As I pointed out earlier, the populist sentiments that powered those candidates' campaigns are once again at the forefront of the American political conscience. Today's electorate however has a few key differences. For one thing, Americans are angry, not just at the government, but in general. For another, there are strong populist sentiments on both sides, whereas in the aforementioned elections, the populist candidate was running against an incumbent President (McGovern against Nixon and Carter against Ford -- although Ford was never elected as President). As such, the electorate of 2016 is uniquely divided -- not along party lines, but by conformity to the establishment. Republicans have the opportunity to coalesce around an establishment candidate just like they did in 1996, and while there have been calls to rally around Marco Rubio or perhaps Jeb Bush, nothing indicates that this will happen. On the Democratic side, it remains to be seen if Bernie Sanders can continue his success in Nevada and South Carolina.
It is possible that both party establishments consolidate around their chosen candidates, and these candidates' popularity will just be another blip in the page of history. I don't think that's the case. Whether or not Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders win their respective parties' nominations, the past few months represent a significant shift in American politics. As Charles Murray points out, you're kidding yourself if you think Trumpism is going to fade if he doesn't win the Republican nomination. The kind of campaigns that they're running -- appealing to a large, frustrated base of Americans who are tired of what they perceive to be repetitive, meaningless rhetoric that furthers the class divide -- is something that we're going to see again in 2020 and perhaps beyond.
1The second, third, fourth, and fifth. According to some political scientists, there is also a sixth. The first started with the end of Washington's presidency and ended with the Hartford Convention in 1814.
2I would argue that the nomination process from the pre-primary era is sufficiently different to warrant putting aside for this discussion.