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Our Opinion: Oregon voters aren't ready to fall in line yet

Are Oregonians just being their cantankerous selves, or is something deeper occurring in their collective psyche?

In the same week that a statewide poll showed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders within striking distance of Hillary Clinton in this state, the senator and presidential candidate from Vermont produced a turnout of 28,000 people — inside and outside the Moda Center — to hear him speak in Portland. Not since Barack Obama drew 75,000 people to Waterfront Park in 2008 has Portland seen such a rock-star response to an upstart political candidate.

Sanders’ reception in Portland sends a strong message that people are looking for an alternative to front-runner Clinton, but it’s not just Democrats who are in a rebellious mood. The same poll that has Sanders within five percentage points of Clinton in the Democratic primary also showed Donald Trump well out in front of his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination.

When asked by Portland’s DHM Research who they would support in the GOP presidential primary, 18 percent of respondents named Trump. In a crowded Republican field, that placed the bombastic billionaire ahead of Scott Walker at 12 percent, Jeb Bush at 11 percent and Ted Cruz at 10 percent.

(For the record, on the Democratic side, it was 44 percent for Clinton, 39 percent for Sanders and 12 percent undecided.)

If there is a common theme tying these statistics together, it’s that a large percentage of voters in both parties are quite dissatisfied with traditional establishment candidates. Further buttressing this viewpoint: The Independent Party of Oregon appears to be on the verge of qualifying for major-party status in this state.

If that accomplishment is indeed realized, the Independent Party, at least for the next election cycle, will have all the perks afforded the Democratic and Republican parties. The state will have to fund the Independent Party’s primary, and its winning candidates will appear on the general election ballot opposite the Democratic and Republican nominees.

The Independent Party will be granted major status if the secretary of state’s office determines that at least 5 percent of Oregon voters had registered as party members. But even if the party crosses the 5 percent threshold, its newfound prominence will be short-lived. That’s because the state’s motor-voter law, approved by the 2015 Legislature, will automatically enroll hundreds of thousands of Oregonians to be new voters in 2017 — and they will be all non-affiliated voters until they choose a party.

With those new voters on the rolls, the Independent Party likely will fall below the 5 percent mark once again. But the underlying progression has been relentless. For years, Oregon voters have been moving away from the two major parties and registering as unaffiliated or as members of minor parties. Frustration with consensus establishment candidates runs high, especially among younger voters.

These trends certainly aren’t limited to Oregon, but this state’s independent streak always has been strong. At the same time, voters retain a sense of realism. Despite their personal preferences, a strong majority of Democrats polled by DHM fully expect Hillary Clinton to be their party’s nominee and a strong plurality of Republicans expect the same of Jeb Bush.

Oregon voters aren’t naíve about the likely outcome of this state’s — and other states’ — 2016 presidential primaries, but neither are they enthused by what they see as the establishment choices. The trick for any national, statewide or local candidates in 2016 will be to tap into this rebellious mood without appearing — like Trump — to be a novelty candidate whose allure is bound to fade.