Major Papers


This paper takes a second look at the 2016 American Presidential Primaries from the perspective of asking what the American people were really after then they chose to ultimately support populism. Media reports and editorial discussions all pointed to a base that was somehow backing misogyny and racism. My research points to an alternative. Populism and social movement theory suggest that the success of anti-establishment candidacies is not credited to populists alone; in the case of 2016, it had support in the credibility and political opportunity left by social movements past. And so to investigate this historic battle between the establishment and anti-establishment candidacies, we can look to what populism and social movements have in common, and how they merge during the framing process. Within this context, this research seeks to answer how the anti-establishment candidates of the 2016 American Primaries framed a battle against 'the establishment' – within an establishment arena and won.

By seeing populism as more of a logic as opposed to an ideology, we can eliminate a partisan lens in the study of what happened in 2016. By seeing populism as a strategy when added to a collective action frame of a social movement, we can analyze how it was used to mobilize voters to action. By using populism and social movement theory, we can add further context to what voters were experiencing in 2016. This study uses a populist master frame analysis of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Primary debates, which ultimately illustrates the efficacy of populist messaging while exposing the weaknesses of the establishment rhetorical response. Findings suggest that populist candidates unearthed deep insecurities in 2016, specifically in areas concerning the economy, foreign policy, and within the identities affected by loss, discrimination and threats to human rights.

Primary Advisor

Dr. Elena Maltseva

Program Reader

Dr. John Sutcliffe

Degree Name

Master of Arts


Political Science

Document Type

Major Research Paper

Convocation Year