POLITICS

As voting begins in 2016 presidential race, America and its politics are in flux

In this Jan. 21, 2016, photo, political buttons are for sale at a gift shop in Des Moines, Iowa.  For some Americans, the promise of political change and disruption has come too slowly, or failed altogether. On the eve of the first voting contest in the 2016 presidential election, these voters are pushing for bolder, more uncompromising action, with an intensity that has shaken both the Republican and Democratic establishment. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

In this Jan. 21, 2016, photo, political buttons are for sale at a gift shop in Des Moines, Iowa. For some Americans, the promise of political change and disruption has come too slowly, or failed altogether. On the eve of the first voting contest in the 2016 presidential election, these voters are pushing for bolder, more uncompromising action, with an intensity that has shaken both the Republican and Democratic establishment. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

First there was the promise of political change in Barack Obama's historic 2008 election. Then the pledge to upend Washington's ways after the 2010 conservative tea party wave.

But for some Americans, the change and disruption have come too slowly, or failed altogether. On the eve of the first voting contest in the 2016 presidential election, these voters are pushing for bolder, more uncompromising action, with an intensity that has shaken both the Republican and Democratic establishments.

Candidates with deep ties to party leadership have been unexpectedly challenged by a billionaire businessman-turned-reality television star, a young senator loathed by Republican leaders, and an unabashed democratic socialist.

"A lot of people feel like the status quo is a machine that's grinding them down," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri. "They are gravitating toward candidates that are disruptive and promising massive change."

Indeed, the campaigns of Republicans Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, as well as Bernie Sanders in the Democratic race, have been fueled for months by anger, frustration and anxiety over an economic and national security landscape that is undeniably in flux.

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Wages have barely budged and the costs for housing, education and health care are soaring. The country is more racially and ethnically diverse than at any point in its history, with census data projecting white Americans will make up less than half the population by mid-century. New terror threats feel both confusing and very close to home.

Monday's Iowa caucuses will offer the first hard evidence of whether the outsider candidates can turn the energy around their campaigns into votes. Trump and Cruz have been battling for supremacy in Iowa, while Sanders has been cutting into Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton's lead.

Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, has spent years railing against the influence of wealthy and corporate interests on American politics. Yet even he says he's surprised by what's happening.

"My gut told me that this message would resonate with the American people but to be honest with you it has resonated stronger and faster than I thought it would," Sanders told The Associated Press.

For years, surveys have shown a large majority of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction. But that sentiment now appears to be disproportionately driven by frustration with politics and the political system.

A recent AP-GfK poll showed that among the 74 percent of Americans with a negative view of the country's direction, 51 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats listed at least one political reason for their negative outlook — far more than listed an economic or foreign policy-related reason.

No candidate has tapped into the public's disillusionment with politics better than Trump, whose controversial comments about Mexicans, Muslims and women are seen by his supporters as a welcome change from most candidates' careful political correctness.

Cruz has tapped into a similar anti-establishment sentiment. Despite being in the Senate, Cruz aligned himself with Republicans who believe party elites made lofty promises to win the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, then ignored the will of the voters who drove those victories.

"Republicans get to Washington and become part of Washington," said Brendan O'Brien, 51, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

It's not just Republicans grappling with a disillusioned electorate.

Clinton entered the Democratic race with all of the institutional advantages. Most Democrats who were seen as potentially tough challengers decided against a run, including Vice President Joe Biden.

At the heart of the fight between Clinton and Sanders is how much the government should do to ease economic burdens for the middle class.

Sanders wants to make tuition at public colleges and universities free. Clinton wants to lessen the burden of the student loan repayment system and create incentives for institutions to lower costs.

With prescription drug costs soaring, Clinton wants to cap out-of-pocket drug costs at $250 a month. Sanders wants to change to a single-payer health care system that he says would lower overall health care costs, even including the tax hike to help pay for the program.

McCaskill, a Clinton supporter, says Sanders is running on "promises that in his gut he's got to know can't be kept." The Republican establishment makes the same argument about Trump's proposals.

But all that matters is whether voters believe the candidates' plans can fly — or whether that factors into their vote at all.

Soon, they'll have their say.

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