Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders: The Two Big Phenomena of This Election

PHOTO: Bernie Sanders speaks in Manchester, N.H., Nov. 29, 2015 and Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Las Vegas, Dec. 14, 2015.PlayAP Photo
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It is the week of debates. And the beginning of the celebration of the holidays. To give homage to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, let's look at the ghosts of the Debate Past, pause for the Present, and look ahead to the ghosts of the Debate yet to come (ABC News hosts a Democratic debate this Saturday in New Hampshire).

The GOP candidates for president gathered this past Tuesday in Las Vegas and the main outcome is that it confirmed the current trajectory of the race. Donald Trump is the dominant figure among the GOP right now, and he is the man to beat heading into next year.

It looks like a two-way fight for second place between Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Each has their different bases of support - and each needing to show strength in the first contests: Cruz really has to win the Iowa caucus to continue, and Rubio needs to finish in second place in New Hampshire to move on. As Ben Carson continues to fall, social conservatives seem to be rallying around Cruz, and the establishment seems to be coalescing around Rubio. Jeb Bush hasn't been able to gain any momentum.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had a good debate, and right now sneaks into the fourth spot in the primary playoffs. He has an outside shot if he can continue his momentum in New Hampshire and surprise folks there in February.

For the Democratic race, Hillary Clinton continues to be the dominant force among the Democrats. She stopped her fall that occurred in the summer, and has stabilized herself with a substantial lead over her nearest competitor - Sen. Bernie Sanders. It is hard to see her losing the nomination, but the real story of that race is the support and energy surrounding Sanders.

We all have talked about Trump ad infinitum and the anti-establishment support he is getting among the GOP, but we haven't focused enough on Sanders and the anti-establishment grassroots he has highlighted. Let us review a few key points:

1) Sanders is probably the most authentic candidate in the entire race. He has fought for his issues for years. His thoughts, words and actions are in total alignment. And though you might disagree with his prescription, he is genuine in his concern for the poor and what has happened to the middle class in America the last thirty years.

2) He has by far more grassroots/small dollar contributors than any other candidate that has run for president at this point. This week Sanders' campaign announced that it has more than two million contributions with an average contribution of around $30. Truly impressive.

3) Though not covered with the same intensity or time, the crowds that Sanders has gathered around the country are nearly as big and are definitely as energetic as followers of Trump. Though coming from a totally different side of populism as Trump, Sanders "people" power is just as impressive.

4) When you look at Sanders' percentage in the national polls and what that represents among Democrats (which is a larger pool than GOP voters), he actually has more raw support than Trump. In fact, in polls done this past fall, Sanders actually bested Trump by a larger margin than Clinton did in a general election.

5) Though Clinton is heavily favored and will likely win the nomination, Sanders has a better chance of being elected president than at least 10 of the Republicans running. There are many in the GOP race who have no real chance of winning any single caucus or primary state. Right now, Sanders is not that far behind in Iowa, and today looks like he will win the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. And none of that can be said for Bush, Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, or any of the others, except for Trump.

As we head to the Democratic debate in the very near future, we should give consideration to the enthusiasm and atmosphere around not only Trump, but the movement Sanders has touched in America as well. Both these candidates have shown, in very different ways, the frustration and anger at our status quo politics and the party establishment in both parties. There are many in America who are tired of the current duopoly.

Even though the ratings won't be as high in the Democratic debate as they were in the CNN GOP debate this week, I expect there to be some real differences on stage between Sanders, Clinton and Martin O'Malley. Let's not just tune in to what is occurring on the Republican side -- there is just as interesting a story going on with Sanders among Democrats.

There you have it.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.

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