More than 20,000 people crowded into an Alabama football stadium Friday evening. Not to watch football, but to hear from a billionaire businessman and television personality now running for president.
“We have politicians that don’t have a clue,” Donald Trump said, to loud applause. “They’re all talk and no action. What’s happening to this country is disgraceful.”
Trump’s unshakable summertime popularity continues to intrigue political experts and Republican politicians. His surprising strength, some believe, reflects a unique combination of factors. A healthy bank account. Charisma. Unabashed populist rhetoric.
And — most important of all — his utter lack of prior experience in public office, a quality he shares with dozens of other outsider candidates across the country this election cycle.
In contemporary politics, it seems, the best political résumé is no résumé at all.
Voters think politics is a “rigged game that only benefits insiders,” said Greg Orman, the independent Kansas businessman who took on GOP senator Pat Roberts last year. That’s led to “fundamental anger” with Washington, Orman said, and the perfect environment for a candidate like Trump to thrive.
Richard Martin, a veteran of Democratic campaigns in Missouri, agrees.
“It’s a symptom of the dysfunction right now in government,” he said. “People are not satisfied with the status quo.”
Trump is the most obvious example of this outsider phenomenon, but he is far from alone.
Former business executive Carly Fiorina has jumped in some presidential polls following a solid GOP debate performance. Ben Carson, a physician without previous elective experience, is far more popular than longtime Republican officeholders like Sen. Lindsey Graham and former governor Rick Perry.
Sen. Bernie Sanders is drawing large Democratic crowds in Iowa, rattling former secretary of state Hillary Clinton — the ultimate insider. Sanders has held elective office, but he’s a self-described socialist and independent, outsider credentials that have helped his campaign.
“What the American people are saying loudly and clearly, all over this country, is ‘enough is enough,’” Sanders told The Star during a recent visit to Kansas City.
Experts aren’t sure the outsider candidates will still be standing when the 2016 election is over. They point to presidential outsider boomlets in past years — Ross Perot, for example. His candidacy surged for a time, then wilted when voters actually cast ballots.
To win, “you need organization, money and grass-roots support,” said political consultant Martin Hamburger. “Outsiders can’t usually put those all together.”
But some analysts think Trump may test that theory. He’s got plenty of money to spend and draws viewers to cable TV like moths to a summer streetlight. Both factors are likely to keep him in the public eye until next year, when the nominating process begins.
Inflammatory rhetoric helps too, particularly with the intense partisans now watching the presidential race.
“Outsiders get the kind of traction that comes from taking strong or even extreme stands — and making waves,” Hamburger observed.
Additionally, outsider candidates at the state level may have made voters more comfortable with the idea of non-experienced politicians running for office.
In 2014, for example, Orman and radiologist Milton Wolf mounted the first serious challenges ever for Roberts, a Washington fixture since 1980. Both made much of Roberts’ long history in office. Both campaigns made national headlines, illustrating the power of the outsider campaign.
In Missouri, newcomer Eric Greitens, nonprofit leader, author and Navy SEAL, will be considered in the top rank of Republican candidates for governor in 2016 if he decides to run.
Businessman John Brunner is also a GOP candidate for Missouri governor, with a U.S. Senate primary already under his belt.
“I’m not a career politician,” his website says, echoing the theme of almost every outsider candidate.
Lawyer and Republican Bev Randles is running for Missouri lieutenant governor and has no record of holding public office.
Lawyer Brad Bradshaw is running for the same job, as a Democrat. His TV ads may be familiar, but he’s never held state office before.
He’s likely to exploit that fact, not try to hide it.
“People are tired of politics as usual,” Bradshaw said. “They see that politicians are not getting anything substantial accomplished.”
Former Missouri senator John Lamping has counseled Greitens. He said Republicans are furious with officeholders who promise changes but never deliver, including candidates in their own party.
He also said voters are disgusted with what he called “cronyism” among incumbents: “When Trump gets up there and says, ‘I’m not in anyone’s pocket,’ I can tell you a huge percentage of our base says, ‘Yeah, that’s good.’”
Voters have reached similar conclusions before, of course.
In 1968, Alabama Gov. George Wallace ran for president as a third-party candidate and won 46 electoral votes. Wallace had served in elected office, but he was considered far outside the mainstream of political thought that year.
In 1992, businessman Perot won 19 percent of the national popular vote, but no electoral votes.
Outsider campaigns are much more common in elections with open seats, such as U.S. president and Missouri governor, Martin noted. That’s because the wealthy businessman or an inspired agitator may see a clearer path to victory in races without an incumbent.
Outsiders have run campaigns within the major parties too. Ministers Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton ran for president as Democrats, for example, without prior elective experience.
But the rogue campaign is much more popular in the GOP.
Television minister Pat Robertson finished second in the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses in 1988, losing to Sen. Bob Dole but beating Vice President George H.W. Bush. In 1996, publisher Steve Forbes ran for president — as did broadcaster Alan Keyes and columnist Pat Buchanan. In 2012, pizza magnate Herman Cain led some Republican polls.
Cain’s campaign withered in the face of allegations about his personal life. Experts say that’s common because outsider candidates are typically unprepared for the media scrutiny that comes with front-runner status.
“For these kinds of candidates to win over voters, it’s important they don’t have things in their backgrounds that could come back to haunt them,” said Kansas City-based political consultant Aaron Trost. “Many first-time candidates haven’t been vetted by the media before, and when that process begins, then the process gets much tougher for outsiders.”
Some have predicted a similar outcome for Trump, Fiorina and Carson in 2016.
“Voters may flirt early on with non-politician presidential candidates as an expression of frustration,” writes columnist Jim Newell in Salon, an online magazine. “But usually as time compresses and voters realize that they’re voting for a president, not some oaf who brings the laughs, they err towards caution, experience and composure.”
Longtime strategist Martin said outsiders are prone to mistakes: “The process is rife with minefields and potential missteps and misstatements. Those things catch up with you.”
Wolf’s campaign stumbled after stories about his Facebook posts surfaced. Orman’s business background became an issue.
Yet Trump in particular seems relatively immune to the political gaffe, at least so far. His Twitter feed is a source of recurring amusement. His well-publicized suggestion that some immigrants are “rapists” and his post-debate feud with Fox News reporters are hiccups that might have disqualified past outside campaigns.
Not Trump’s campaign, at least not yet. Some polls show some Republicans now think the billionaire will be their party’s nominee.
“An FYI to all the Donald Trump haters: We’ve won,” the candidate tweeted in mid-August. “Most admit TRUMP CAN WIN.”