Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Anti-establishment trends continue after third GOP debate

The current political climate is weird and getting weirder. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s Republican debate, we offer insights from two old establishment guys who admit to being rather baffled.

What is going on at the grass-roots level of politics in this country? Why have Donald Trump and Ben Carson been attracting big crowds and winning in the polls while establishment candidates languish in obscurity? Are we finally seeing a turning point in the campaign?

Pignanelli: “There are some people that are great campaigners, like Trump, and some people that are actually ‘good in reality.’ So far the ‘good in reality’ people are not doing so well in the polls." — David Brooks

Because politicos are so confused, I am thinking a lot about this dilemma (which is difficult since most of my limited brain matter is taxed trying to understand teenage communications).

Several national dynamics are occurring at the same time. The post-Great Recession economic rebound is the most sluggish in history. Our social traditions are evolving. The snooty Washington, D.C., intelligentsia is clueless. Americans have unprecedented access to news and information that reveals officials are impotent to effect reform. Therefore, faith in government and societal institutions is at an all-time low. So when a governor or senator brags about experience, he is just digging a deeper hole.

This election is not about substance, but style. So candidates who exude competence but smell of establishment (i.e. Gov. Jeb Bush) are struggling. Trump and Carson mock everything with blatantly false statements but attract support because frustrated Republicans love their outsider status and unorthodox approach.

Webb: I’ve been saying for months that the Trump/Carson blimps are going to fizzle. While the Wednesday debate isn’t going to make or break the campaign, we may have heard the hiss of escaping gas.

Conservative Republicans are understandably and justifiably disgusted with Washington and all things establishment. But at some point, even the most angry, disillusioned, anti-government activist assuming any common sense at all has to ask which conservative candidate can win the general election and prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming president.

Trump, Carson and Ted Cruz would be calamitous in the general election. Clinton would win independents, moderates and all minority groups by large margins and rout the Republicans. Marco Rubio, Chris Christieand possibly John Kasich and Carly Fiorina have fighting chances to win centrist votes and beat Clinton.

It’s time for the bottom tier to get out of the race. Unfortunately, that includes Bush, a terrific leader who can’t win.

Are Democrats also seeing anti-establishment trends?

Pignanelli: Yes, but Democrats express frustration a different way. Liberals are concerned with Clinton’s track record on environmental, economic and social issues. They found solace in an anti-establishment icon who never filed as a Democrat until several months ago. Other Democrats — abhorring Clinton's email controversy — expressed disgust to pollsters. But they returned to her fold when Bernie Sanders and Vice President Joe Biden opined that Clinton’s ethical travails were not an issue. However, they are forcing Clinton to make statements that may be harmful in the general election.

Webb: Leftist Democrats will never be entirely satisfied with Clinton because she’s a total opportunist, not a true-blue liberal ideologue.

But liberal Democrats are smart enough to unite behind a winner, even if they don’t get everything they want. Democrats will be unified while Republicans are still brawling. And it’s entirely possible Trump will spin off as an independent, despite his promise not to, throwing the election to Clinton.

Is this grass-roots phenomenon as strong in Utah? Does it portend problems for Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker, Gov. Gary Herbert and other mainstream candidates?

Pignanelli: Utah politics is not immune to this national angst. Becker's philosophies and accomplishments are aligned with most city voters, but many now object to his style. In Salt Lake City, the establishment is performing well but a chunk of voters believes it is unresponsive or lacks connection to their needs.

Herbert and other 2016 incumbents are fortunate to have the benefit of the mayor's race as a guidebook. High approval ratings the year before the election offer little advantage. If grumpy citizens suspect an establishment candidate is out of touch — regardless of achievements — they will flip support.

Webb: Certainly an anti-establishment streak exists in Utah. But it’s not as strong as in many other states. I recently attended a conference on energy and air quality where speaker after speaker talked about the willingness of Utahns to collaborate and work together to accomplish important ventures. Two top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in recent high-profile speeches, called for compromise and civility on divisive issues. Utahns are pretty good at detecting charlatans and extremists. Members of Utah’s congressional delegation don’t need to pander to the far right as much as they do. I have faith in our voters.