Why Some Voters Are Torn Between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders

January 31st 2016

Kyle Jaeger

DES MOINES, Iowa — At first thought, it seems utterly paradoxical: Some voters in Iowa say that they were initially torn between Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Republican front-runner Donald Trump. At second thought, it makes complete sense.


Every election season, presidential hopefuls descend upon Iowa in an effort to rouse support ahead of the caucus, a voting event that sets the tone and pace of the national election. They hold rallies and stage debates, visit local hangouts and shake hands with residents. Every four years, another political circus — another round of candidates to judge.

How 2016 might be the year of the outsider.

This year, it seems, is the the year of the outsider. While Sanders has worked in Washington D.C. for upwards of 30 years — first as Vermont's House representative and then as a senator — he is perceived as an outsider. Or at least an anti-establishment politician who hasn't succumbed to the elitism or corruption that people associated with the federal government. Trump, meanwhile, is the living definition of a political outsider: a business mogul, billionaire, a reality TV star.

Whether the perception of these candidates as outsiders is totally accurate is up for debate, of course. But regardless, the sales pitch appears to play well in Iowa. I've talked to a number of caucus-goers in the state who have told me that they were unsure who to throw their support behind. They were torn between Sanders or Trump. The obvious differences in their platforms was a secondary issue; they just wanted someone who wasn't corrupted by Washington or bought out by lobbyists. Both candidates fit the bill.

I wouldn't say that this group represents a large (or even moderately sized) share of the voter base in Iowa, but it's sizeable enough to come up in conversation on a regular basis. It surprised me at first to hear, for example, the guy with the locally famous giant Trump sign on his fence say that he "was thinking a little bit about Bernie" before going gung-ho for the GOP front-runner. But then again, listening to the interview for a second time, I heard the important part George Davey told me:

"I want somebody who's not in the mainstream."

I asked Dr. Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, what he made of this kind of voter. To his mind, it's unsurprising that some would be undecided over Sanders and Trump.

"We've completely mislabeled the Trump and Bernie Sanders candidacies as being leftist, socialist, and right-wing conservative," Schmidt said. "And what they have in common is that they are the most disruptive. They are trying to disrupt a traditional pattern of voters and politicians just kind of going along and satisfying their constituencies, and both Bernie as well as Donald Trump are beating the shit out of the establishment in both parties and just attracting people who are disillusioned, who are upset with the status quo."

"And so they are not left or right. They are interested in shaking up the system and trying something completely new and different and I think that's why we shouldn't be surprised," he said.

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