The 2016 presidential campaign has transformed from business as usual into a new moment in American politics, with implications that could be far-reaching, disruptive and transformative.
The voters of New Hampshire confirmed what polls have been suggesting for months: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are serious candidates for president, with large coalitions in each party behind them.
The two men are the types of candidates who traditionally succeed in European, not American, politics: the populist conservative and the socialist. Trump is essentially creating a political wing of his own, defined by his outlandish promises to singularly change American government with his leadership and business acumen and his ability to tap into the concerns many Americans have about illegal immigration, the threat of home-grown terrorism, the rising cost of health care and other threats to the middle class.
Sanders has pushed well beyond the liberalism of past progressive candidates like Bill Bradley and Howard Dean, directly arguing America should be more like countries in Western Europe that have much larger safety nets and define themselves as socialist, not capitalist.
It’s not at all clear whether either candidate will eventually win their party’s nominations.
But they have already proved that what were assumed to be the laws of politics were in fact only customs and traditions to be broken. While the other candidates in both parties have raised millions through “super-PAC’s,” both Sanders and Trump have eschewed that approach, with the Vermont senator relying exclusively on small donors and Trump running a media-driven campaign in which he has spent little on polling or campaign infrastructure.
Democratic voters were thought to be too practical to embrace a candidate who pushed single-payer health insurance, which even progressive candidates like Dean and Barack Obama stopped short of proposing.
The Republican National Committee, three years ago, released a detailed report arguing the party must soften its rhetoric on immigration to appeal to people of color. The GOP’s voters were expected to fall in line and embrace a candidate, like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, who followed that formula.
A popular theory in political science, referred to as the “The Party Decides,” argues that influential donors and insiders in each party have the ability to shape the nomination process and push voters toward the candidates of the elites.
By this logic, Sanders and Trump should have had little chance. Trump has not been endorsed by a single sitting Republican governor or member of Congress. And a number of the party’s leading figures, such as the conservative magazine National Review, are waging an anybody-but-Trump campaign.
A few members of Congress have backed Sanders, but Clinton has an overwhelming advantage in support among Democratic elites, from elected officials to leaders of key activist groups.
Even President Obama, who remains very popular among Democrats, has all but endorsed Clinton, praising her in lavish terms and suggesting Sanders’ policy ideas are unrealistic.
Even if they don’t win their parties’ nominations, Sanders and Trump’s victories in New Hampshire show their political approaches are not too radical for voters. And because they have been successful, Sanders and Trump’s agendas and campaign approaches could have implications well-beyond this primary season.
The GOP has traditionally been split between a more moderate wing focused on low taxes and a strong national defense and a conservative activist wing that is more populist, religious and strongly opposed to abortion rights.
At least so far, there are indications that Trump has created a new, third wing of Republicans, made up of people without college degrees who are not particularly religious, very concerned about issues like illegal immigration and wary of free trade agreements and changes to Medicare and Social Security that the business wing of the GOP favors.
The real estate mogul, even if he is not the party’s nominee, could be illustrating a new way to run for office as a Republican, one not dependent on religious conservatives or corporate interests as supporters, but instead reliant upon rank and file voters who are more populist.
On the Democratic side, party officials have traditionally been deeply fearful of their proposals being likened to European countries that practice elements of socialism. They have been unwilling to say directly that the United States, which constantly casts itself as the world’s greatest nation, has some fundamental flaws and should borrow from the child care, education and health insurance models of Europe.
If Bernie Sanders — a 74-year-old who has campaigned most of his life as an Independent and is running against one of the most powerful political families in America — can have success while being so openly liberal, expect Democratic candidates for other offices to take this course as well.
The biggest disruptions from Sanders and Trump are not just about the political parties they’re campaigning to represent. Traditional news media ignored or disregarded the strength of Sanders’ candidacy for months. In spite of that, he grew a massive grassroots network and fundraising base on the power of social media.
Trump feuded with the biggest outlet in conservative media, Fox News. He bashed Megyn Kelly, one of Fox’s leading anchors, and even skipped a Fox debate watched by 12 million people on the eve of the Iowa caucuses.
Trump has shown the power of having a pre-existing brand, in that he is such a ratings draw that Fox wants him on its airwaves even as he slams one of the network’s stars. And he has been able to embrace both new media, doing regular interviews with the little known conservative news site Breitbart.com, and also traditional media, even dictating how traditional news networks cover him.
Network news shows traditionally request guests appear on set, but they yielded as Trump called into their programs. Now, even Hillary Clinton is calling into TV news programs.
Sanders and Trump’s campaigns suggest that the traditional gatekeepers in American society, from rich donors to the news media, may have less influence than widely thought. These insurgent campaigns are a model not just for politicians but for activist groups, sports figures and other who want to have an impact on society.
Finally, Trump has opened up a new and potentially negative form of American discourse. As Vox’s Amanda Taub argued in a recent piece, under the guise of fighting “political correctness,” Trump has made a number of controversial remarks: suggesting Mexico was intentionally sending rapists to the United States, calling Megyn Kelly a “bimbo,” proposing to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States and using a word for female genitalia to describe his rival Ted Cruz.
The traditional view is that Americans elect the most positive, uplifting candidate, a description that fits past winners like Ronald Reagan and Obama. Donald Trump is not sunny, and neither is Bernie Sanders. But 2016 may just be the year Americans break all the rules on the path to the presidency.
This article first appeared on NBCNews.com.