DES MOINES, Iowa — Mark Dawson, 73, is so frustrated with politics that he hasn’t voted in his state’s quirky caucuses in years.
“It’s getting to me. The past few years, you know, it don’t matter what party they belong to — all they care about is enriching themselves,” he told msnbc on Friday, echoing a frustration many Iowans expressed in interviews this weekend.
Such voter frustration with politics as usual has made Iowa fertile ground for outsiders looking to secure momentum in the 2016 presidential contest. Iowans told msnbc they’re tired of how money influences politics and said they’re hungry for dramatic change. It’s why, they said, Donald Trump is dominating the Republican polls along with two other candidates who have never been elected to any office, and why Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is vowing “political revolution,” is surging on the left.
Trump has defied political expectations and dominated the polls for weeks as he cultivates a media circus, lambastes his opponents, and promises to speak truth to power while announcing very few tangible policy proposals. Supporters say they trust him because he’s not taking money from donors.
“People in America are sick and tired of politicians," Dawson said. "That’s why Donald Trump, I think, is polling well, though I don’t think he will be able to sustain it."
Dawson’s also got his eye on the former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who shot up from relative obscurity in the polls after a breakout performance in the nationally televised “happy hour” debate earlier this month.
“I turned to a couple people that were with me during that debate and said, ‘finally!’” Dawson recalls. He was waiting to hear Fiorina speak in a packed library in Mason City, Iowa, where the chairs filled quickly and many stood or sat on the ground to hear the hour-long Q&A session with the candidate.
“We’ve had politicians for so long and so many problems in this country that haven’t been fixed,” another Iowa voter, Ron Rachut, told msnbc after Fiorina spoke. “She’s seen the real world. I guess that’s the biggest thing — too many politicians have not seen the real world.”
In a poll taken after the first major candidates' debate, Trump topped all his rival Republicans in Iowa. He was followed by Dr. Ben Carson, a well regarded pediatric neurosurgeon and sole African-American in the race, while Fiorina tied for fifth. Together, the three outsiders are besting a half dozen governors and senators alike.
On the Democratic side, Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist who vows to fundamentally rework the political system, is drawing the largest crowds of the election cycle so far, with more than a hundred thousand turning out in total so far.
People are "sick and tired" of "incompetent politicians," Trump told msnbc's "Morning Joe" earlier this month.
"I think people are looking for are real solutions that make sense as opposed to all this cronyism and entanglements," Carson told msnbc on Sunday at the Iowa State Fair.
“People are tired of professional politicians, it’s a lot of talk and not a lot of action in Washington, D.C. People don’t see anything changing,” Fiorina told msnbc on Friday at a campaign event in this state.
A straw poll taken at the Iowa State Fair — ongoing at press time — signaled that she might be right.
Voters' view of the traditional pipeline for politicians is pretty dim: just 14% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing and neither party has a majority of voters' approval, according to the Pew Research Center.
“It’s like trying to pick between the shiniest of two turds,” Lucas Figuera, 19, said. As a new voter, he said he leans Democrat but doesn't really feel at home in either party. Early next year, he plans to caucus for Sanders.
"When I speak to 28,000 people in Portland, Oregon, and 27,000 people in Los Angeles, the vast majority of those people, they're not, quote, unquote, ‘registered Democrats.’ They are ordinary people who are sick and tired of politics as usual,” Sanders said on “Meet the Press” Sunday.
Though there’s an ocean between them on the issues, Trump and Sanders are striking the same nerve.
“The anger at the established politicians is so intense that it almost arcs around and meets in the back — the intellectual and ideological space between Bernie Sanders and Trump is really narrow,” Democratic strategist Stu Loeser told msnbc.
Both candidates drive the narrative that “formerly respected power structures aren’t telling them the truth and they’re suffering for it,” he said. Whether it’s “the financial system is against you or the immigrants are stealing your jobs, it is fundamentally the same thing.”
Loeser worked for another outsider turned politician, Michael Bloomberg, and said his appeal stemmed from his perceived honestly and ability to communicate differently.
“Most Americans, most New Yorkers appreciated the fact that he was telling the truth in sort of plain language and saying it in a way that sounded like the way they talked,” Loeser said of New York City’s three-term mayor.
Sanders “doesn’t use the whole aristocratic political jargon that I usually hear,” Bridget Johnston, 19, said. “Trump kinda does the same thing where he’s very casual, except the things that come out of his mouth shouldn’t.”
Fiorina “talks good, plain common sense,” Dawson said.
Carson, in particular, speaks in hushed tones that leave voters and reporters leaning in; his campaign events feel more like a lengthy one-sided discussions than political speeches and no topic is off limits: In speeches that often turn rambling, he’ll speak at length about his rocky upbringing, the drug dealer who befriended him as a child but was later killed, and even his sex life.
Still, when he does speak broadly, it's often about being an outsider.
"We shouldn't let the political class pick our presidents,” Carson said at Sunday’s soapbox at the Iowa State Fair. "The problems that threaten to destroy us are not Democrat problems or Republican problems. They are American problems."
Additional reporting by Vaughn Hillyard.