Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls are facing challenges from two candidates who draw on the populist wings of their parties.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described “Democratic Socialist,” represents the far-left populists—angry at Wall Street, infuriated by income inequality, fearful of foreign economic competition and committed to a peace-at-all-costs isolationism that blames America for the world’s ills.
Mr. Sanders has gained about 250,000 donors and turned out huge crowds in Iowa, Wisconsin, Maine and New Hampshire. Since launching his campaign on May 26, he has cut Hillary Clinton’s lead in Iowa to 34 points from 51 and her margin in New Hampshire to 16 from 37, according to poll averages by Real Clear Politics.
For Republicans, the challenge is television personality and hotelier Donald J. Trump. Mr. Trump is hardly a die-hard conservative, having donated $314,300 to Democrats (including Sens. Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton) and $290,600 to Republicans between 1989 and 2010, as the Daily Caller reports. But his message is aimed at conservative populists.
These are people who believe the country is going down the tubes and are angry that the GOP hasn’t stopped President Obama. Mr. Trump’s promise to build a wall on the southern border and send Mexico the bill has helped his poll numbers. So has telling the Chinese to go to hell on trade. Mr. Trump’s rise, to 6.5% in the Real Clear Politics average, comes at the expense of others competing for the same space, including neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Scott Walker. None of them is as blunt and outrageous in tapping into resentment as Mr. Trump.
Both of these new populist champions are planning to hang around. Mr. Sanders, an ideological true-believer, wants to drag his party further left. Mr. Trump wants to draw attention and become a political force. It will be interesting to see how other White House hopefuls handle these disruptive intraparty rivals.
So far Mrs. Clinton is dealing with Mr. Sanders’s challenge by moving left. She is attempting to make herself indistinguishable from him ideologically, even at the risk of looking inauthentic and cynical—as she does when attacking hedge-fund managers while playing down her and her husband’s long and lucrative relationship with Wall Street. Mr. Sanders could also pull her so far left in the primaries as to create openings for Republicans to exploit in the general election.
Mrs. Clinton recognizes that Mr. Sanders may win early states like Iowa that include a fervent hard-left element. But she’s counting on her fundraising advantage and stronger national organization to grind the senator down over time.
The response of GOP candidates to Mr. Trump should be guided by the June 23 Fox News Poll showing that 64% of Republicans, 69% of conservatives and 55% of tea party members consider his candidacy a sideshow. An analyst at the FiveThirtyEight website pointed out that Mr. Trump has the worst favorable/unfavorable ratings of 106 presidential candidates since 1980, worse than even Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Mr. Trump is disliked by 57% of his own party.
If asked about his extreme statements, Mr. Trump’s Republican competitors have two options: They can gingerly applaud the feisty casino magnate, hoping to eventually inherit his supporters while trying to avoid responsibility for what he says.
Or they can disagree with Mr. Trump by emphasizing their own views and distance themselves, respectfully, while trying not to use his name. When Mr. Trump is wrong, this is the better course—but be prepared: He responds with insults. He feeds on controversy.
He has called the rest of the candidates in the GOP field “clowns”; tweeted that Rick Perry “needs a new pair of glasses to see the crimes committed by illegal immigrants”; and retweeted a follower who wrote that Jeb Bush “has to like the Mexican Illegals because of his wife.”
When I raised questions about his seriousness, Mr. Trump tweeted that I had “spent $430 million in the last cycle and didn’t win one race.” (In 2010, he donated $50,000 to the Crossroads political-action organizations for which I volunteer.) In the 2014 cycle, Crossroads groups spent $103 million to help win 10 of 12 targeted U.S. Senate seats and 10 of 13 competitive House seats. Not that facts matter much to The Donald.
Mr. Trump could become the 2016 version of Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, who tarnished the GOP brand in 2012 with an offensive statement about rape. Republican leaders from Mitt Romney on down immediately condemned his words, but swing voters were persuaded that every Republican believed what Mr. Akin said.
Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump won’t win their party’s nomination. But in trying, they could make the path to the White House that much rockier for whoever eventually does.
A version of this article appeared July 9, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Trump And Sanders, The Disrupter Brothers and online at WSJ.com.