DES MOINES, Iowa — They are angry at a political system they see as rigged. They feel squeezed by immigration, or the power of big banks. They sense that America is heading in the wrong direction, but emphatically believe only their candidate has the strength and vision to change things.
The voters driving two of the more remarkable movements of this election cycle — for Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders — share striking similarities. Both groups are heavily white, more male than female, and both are fueled partly by people who, in interviews, express distrust of their parties and the other candidates, especially Hillary Clinton.
No matter how their preferred candidates fare in the Iowa caucuses Monday, the supporters of Sanders and Trump are reshaping the campaign and could have a profound impact on the outcome in the fall.
In dozens of interviews at rallies in Iowa, and longer conversations in their homes or workplaces, supporters of both candidates spoke openly of their anxiety about the future. Even if they were not personally affected by the economic downturn, Sanders’ supporters worried about the growing inequality in wealth and income; Trump’s worried about terrorists coming across the border.
Yet there was also palpable enthusiasm for their candidate and hopefulness about the future he represented. They believe that only their candidate can fix a broken system because he is not beholden to it; neither has a “super PAC” for big donors to pour money into.
Many in both groups said they had never felt so strongly about a political figure before.
“He stands for everything I believe in,” said Alex Curtis, 19, who traveled six hours from Nebraska to hear Sanders speak last Sunday in Fayette, Iowa. “He’s going to restore the American dream and bring class mobility.”
Said Toby Richards, 50, a farmer from Knoxville, Iowa: “It’s so refreshing to have someone who’s not being bought, and Trump’s not being bought. What he says now can’t be swayed by money.”
The two movements have significant differences: Trump attracts support across a wide spectrum of demographic groups, but is strongest among Americans without a college degree (8 of 10 Trump supporters do not have one) and those with lower incomes, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll in December.
Sanders draws strong backing from younger voters and self-identified liberals, and 43 percent of Sanders backers are at least college graduates, the same survey showed.
“They’re younger, they’re proud of being liberals, and they like Sen. Sanders personally,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.
Trump and Sanders voters are the likeliest among their parties to be “angry” at Washington, according to the Times/CBS News poll, with 52 percent of Trump backers and 30 percent of Sanders backers identifying that way.
Anger has risen steadily since 2010 among both Democrats and Republicans, according to polling conducted by The Times and CBS News. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they are angry, and whites are more likely than African-Americans to say they are angry. But the rates for all are going up, and their anger appears to be one factor sweeping Trump and Sanders from the relative margins to the top of many polls.
In interviews with voters in Iowa, the anger simmered close to the surface. “Oh, heck, yeah, I’m angry,” said Savannah Granahan, 52, who plans to caucus for Sanders and attended a campaign event for the first time this month, near her home in Fort Dodge. “This country isn’t run by the government. It’s run by the almighty dollar.”
About 85 miles away, Esther Toney, 71, a retired prison guard from Collins, returned from a Trump rally in Ames fired up. “Oh, I’m very angry,” said Toney, who comes from a family of Democrats. “I’m extremely angry. We’ve got politicians that are just there for their own gain. They should be thinking about how they can make our lives better. And they don’t. They vote on things to support their PACs or whoever gave them money.”
The targets of their anger diverge. Trump’s supporters directed their wrath toward career politicians, unlawful immigrants, terrorists and people who they said were taking advantage of welfare. Sanders’ supporters assailed big banks and economic inequality.
Sanders’ supporters tended to blame the campaign finance system for Washington dysfunction; Trump’s supporters blamed the politicians who they said cared only about donations.
“Look at our health care,” said Sean Bolton, 42, of Norwalk, a Trump supporter who once voted for Barack Obama because of similar promises of independence. “Who do you think wrote those laws? I guarantee it was the insurance companies and drug manufacturers of the world.”
And while people in both groups express criticism of Clinton, it is for different reasons: Supporters of Sanders find her dishonest; fans of Trump worry she would continue the policies of President Obama, which they oppose.
Both camps include many people who have not been active in the Iowa caucuses before, or previously supported the other party. And the characteristics they bring up in describing their chosen candidate are distinct: Those in Trump’s camp said he would bring better financial and negotiating skills; those in Sanders’ said he would bring better conditions for average working people.
The two candidates have not shied from appeals to anger. Trump said recently that he “will gladly accept the mantle of anger.”
Even as he said he would compete to attract Trump voters, Sanders distinguished his message from Trump’s, saying the Republican candidate is “using it to scapegoat minorities.” Trump said he would cool his tone once the campaign battles were over.
A big question for both parties is whether the energy generated by the Trump and Sanders movements will be enough to lift them over more traditional contenders, like Clinton on the Democratic side or Sen. Ted Cruz for the Republicans. And beyond that, will these voters, if Sanders and Trump do not prevail, stay involved into the fall?
In many ways the appeal that the two men have does not seem easily transferable. Supporters are drawn to what they see as their independence and a lack of pandering.
Brad Nelson, 50, who works the overnight shift as manager at a chain of convenience stores in Des Moines, said he had last turned out for a caucus to support Ronald Reagan in 1980, but he planned to do so this year, probably for Trump or Cruz.
Nelson voiced a litany of irritations: people on welfare who don’t want to work, immigrants taking jobs, the culture of complaint.
“It makes me angry that this is how the country is,” he said. “After 200 years we have to be politically correct? We can’t say the Pledge of Allegiance?”
But his main grievance was against the system. “I don’t think you get voted into office — I think it’s who’s paying the bills that gets people into office,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more involved or listened to the debates like this year.”
What drew him to Trump, he said, was his independence, which he summed up as: “What I say is what I do. Nobody else tells me differently.”
Each side views its candidate as a little raw and, as a result, uniquely able to channel this election’s frustrations and resentments toward real and productive change.
Justin Holihan, 31, of Ames, a paramedic who supports Sanders, said he feared that growing economic inequality might pitch the country toward either revolution or a police state. “I make $18.50 an hour, and I need to work 50 to 60 hours a week in order to pay my bills,” he said. “I can’t imagine how someone making minimum wage can.”
Holihan, who previously voted for George W. Bush and Obama, walks with a limp from a ski injury; his insurance company cut off payments for physical therapy, he said, and he cannot afford more treatments until he pays the bills for the sessions he has had already.
He did not want to see neighbors rising up with pitchforks, Holihan said. “That’s why I’m hoping somebody like Bernie Sanders gets elected and can help solve some of these issues before we get pushed to that step,” he said. “Because people are angry.”