Last weekend, a funny thing happened at Fancy Farm, the festive annual Kentucky political tradition, where leading candidates from both parties roast their opposition in the most scathing, entertaining ways possible. This year was different. Matt Bevin, the GOP's nominee for governor, gave an unusual speech in which he slammed the event for being too political, and too mean-spirited. "We are celebrating our divisions, and we are doing it in a childish way that frankly does not resolve any of the issues that we face," Bevin said, amid boos from the Democratic party faithful.
Bevin's off-key speech was, predictably, panned by the statewide political press—and mocked by his Democratic opposition. But in reality, Bevin may have been more in line with the current political moment than many realize. His rants against the political class are in sync with today's sour public mood, with voters distrusting career politicians, canned talking points, and homey traditions at a time of slow economic growth and growing threats abroad. It's a boom time for authentic politicians who tell it like it is and don't play by the old political rules.
How else can you explain the meteoric rise of Donald Trump, whose appeal comes from his acid attacks against Washington and lifelong politicians? Or the appeal of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose rambling kickoff speech and unscripted responses to media questions have nonetheless propelled him onto the debate stage, and into the top tier in New Hampshire? Or the sudden interest that Joe Biden, the most authentic vice president in modern history, is showing towards a presidential campaign as Hillary Clinton's cautious, calculating approach is backfiring with many voters?
We're at a unique moment in American politics, in which politicians have become more like actors, reciting the lines their political handlers give them, running in a trivial 24-7 media culture where any gaffe, however minor, is often treated like a seismic catastrophe. It's made politicians much less relatable and less popular (most politicians have upside-down favorability in national polling), and increased the level of cynicism among the press and paranoia among campaign operatives. Combine that with the anger many voters feel towards the political class, and there's a yuuuge opening for any politician who connects with people and appears genuine—even if voters don't agree with all their positions on issues. (Just look at this week's Bloomberg poll, showing Trump not only winning support from the Republican Party's populist wing but leading among women, affluent voters, those under 45, and voters with a college degree. This isn't only about his anti-immigration rhetoric; it's about his uncanny ability to generate nonstop news coverage through his antics.)
This is America's moment of authenticity. It's why every GOP candidate, from Ted Cruz to Rand Paul to Lindsey Graham, is rushing to perform silly stunts—putting a cell phone in a blender, destroying the tax code with a chainsaw, and making "machine-gun bacon"—to demonstrate they've got some personality. President Obama himself accelerated the trend, proving his coolness by selling his agenda with comedian Zach Galifianakis on Between Two Ferns and with YouTube sensation GloZell.
Trump is the clearest example of this phenomenon. The celebrity business mogul is brash and offensive. Even though he has taken positions that would be toxic both in a GOP primary (past support for single-payer health care, backing abortion rights) and a general election (calling illegal immigrants from Mexico "rapists," and mocking John McCain for being held as a prisoner of war), he has surged into first place in most national and early-state primary polls. Many Republican voters don't care about his obvious lack of policy positions. As they see it, he's speaking truth to power. One telling Bloomberg-sponsored New Hampshire focus group, filled with Trump admirers, said they liked his bluntness, admired his business success, and argued his strong persona is exactly what Washington needs.
Will his momentum last indefinitely? Probably not. It's telling that of the 10 Trump fans interviewed in the focus group, only two said they were likely to vote for him in the end. It's more likely that as the primaries draw closer, and voters seriously consider who they'd want to see as president, Trump's antics will be trumped by someone with a little more governing experience. But his rise, and staying power, underscores just how intense the anti-Washington sentiment is across the country.
One beneficiary if Trump falters is Kasich, one of the most successful unscripted politicians in recent history. The famously blunt Ohio governor won two tough elections in the perennial battleground state, after representing a swing Columbus-area House district for 18 years. He's got a compelling mix of experience, sustained political success, and, yes, an unpredictability that many skeptics have long assumed to be his biggest vulnerability. After his super PAC went on air with an early ad campaign in New Hampshire, he surged into fourth place in recent polling.
To many Republicans, Kasich's problem is that he frequently says what's on his mind and is prone to going off on moralizing tangents, and that his authenticity sometimes translates into testiness with the media and even voters. He didn't seem to help his campaign with a meandering kickoff speech that lasted nearly an hour. But in a political environment where such mistakes can become endearing, he's got a lot of potential that's just beginning to show. (His recent polling momentum is a clear example of that.) And while many conservatives are skeptical about his ideological fidelity, the fact that a once-liberal Trump can soar in the polls proves that ideology isn't the only driving factor in GOP voters' decision-making. Kasich's record of tax cuts, spending restraint, and education reform should appeal to enough Republicans to make him a factor in the race.
That brings up the politician currently getting the most attention: Vice President Biden. As I wrote last week, Biden's biggest strength is his political authenticity. While Clinton is avoiding the press, preferring stage-managed interactions with voters, Biden is a joyful campaigner, an eager glad-handler and a favorite of the press that covers him. If he runs, he'd provide a personal test to the notion that authenticity is as important a political asset as money and organization.
At the very least, it's an undervalued and underappreciated skill in the age of celebrity operatives, big-name donors, and big-spending super PACs. Republicans are just beginning to understand the importance of authenticity in their own volatile primary. And if Biden jumps in the race, Democrats will find their own primary campaign roiled by a dose of straight talk.