For years America has claimed that its political system is broken. It has been incredibly polarised. There was hope that Barack Obama might change the dynamic when first elected seven years ago. He promised to work with Republicans. But the senior Republican in the Senate said very early on that it was his intention to make Obama 'a one-term president'.
They tried to block any proposals he put forward – they fought him where they could and tried to derail his agenda. Obama didn’t help by pushing on with new measures that didn’t consider conservative voices. There was gridlock.
Representatives in Congress who worked with the other side found themselves challenged in primary contests. Compromise was seen as collaboration. One right-wing Republican who beat a veteran senator in Indiana to take the party’s nomination claimed he was going to Washington and that dealing with Democrats was not on his agenda. 'One side or the other has to win this argument, one side or the other will dominate', he insisted. He lost what was regarded as a safe seat for his party. The dysfunction in Washington led to record lows in opinion polls. People were simply fed up with their elected representatives. And that goes some way to explaining the rise of the outsider in the current presidential race.
One year ago, most people were expecting the contest in November 2016 to be between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Both were far ahead in the polls. Hillary was the wife of one of the smartest retail politicians in American history with a strong economic record while in the White House. Jeb Bush was the son and brother of two former presidents. Yet, with the first real test of the electorate less than two weeks away in Iowa, neither is guaranteed a victory.
On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders has tapped into the universal frustration with Washington and Wall Street. A self-confessed socialist – a label which historically has not gone down well in the US – his attacks on income equality and big money politics has tapped a vein of raw emotion. With his wild hair and unpolished image, the 74-year-old junior senator from Vermont has been attracting huge crowds and so many small donations that he’s now better funded than Barack Obama was at this point. He’s grumpy and doesn’t really care much what the media think of him. He wants universal healthcare, free college education and higher taxes on the rich to pay for improved roads, bridges and rail lines. It’s an agenda which appeals to the party’s grassroots. He’s tied in the polls in the first two states with Hillary Clinton who, at one stage, enjoyed a lead of more than 40 points.
On the Republican side, with a much bigger field, there are three main outsiders. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson has never held elected office, but for a brief period in the last few months was near the top of most polls. He’s fallen away as his debate performances showed real deficiencies in his grasp of foreign policy and macro-economic theory. But his message of self-improvement and trust in God found support with many of the party’s evangelicals.
And then there are Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Cruz is a first-term senator from Texas who believes his party has lost recent presidential elections because they didn’t nominate a real conservative. Even though he’s worked for every branch of the government, he casts himself as anti-establishment. He criticises Washington at every turn. He even led a shutdown of the government to try to kill President Obama’s affordable healthcare act. But his message resonates with people who want to see things done differently, who want to shake up the status quo and who will quote the bible while doing it. He’s leading in the polls in Iowa, and a win there would be a big step towards the nomination, even if the last two victors there didn’t end up in the final fight.
Donald Trump has captured the headlines with his 'Make America Great’ campaign. He paints a picture of a strong dominant America. The complexities and challenges of the 21st century are glossed over with soundbites and tried and trusted lines. As one man told me at a Trump rally in Las Vegas: 'He’ll make America what it was in the 50s and that was a great time. I want to go back to that'. The man I was speaking to was 49.
He energises the grass roots of the party who believe that the current system leaves them ignored, frustrated and betrayed. He says things which many people feel and his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim message has struck a chord with people who believe it to be true but feel they can’t articulate it for fear of being branded racist. He ignores the fact-checkers, and no-one cares.
Normally the nomination races boil down to an outsider and an 'establishment’ figure. That’s where the Democrats are headed. For the Republicans, Florida senator Marco Rubio is perhaps the strongest establishment candidate. Jeb Bush is too far behind to be a serious consideration at this point. And so the party might have to choose between two outsiders. And there’s part of its problem.
Both struggle to be liked in their own party. Trump is considered too much of a loose cannon by many Republicans, his views too far from the mainstream to even come close to being president. There are those in the Republican Party who hoped his campaign would implode. Now it hasn’t, they are actively working to stop him. Cruz is widely loathed in his own party. He’s been called a 'jackass’ and 'crazy’ in public by senior figures in the party. It’s not hard to imagine what he’s called in private.
Both provoke anger and dissatisfaction within the party. Which is exactly the sentiment which has led the public to embrace them.
Alan Fisher is a senior correspondent for Al Jazeera