What an anxious America tells us about 2016 election

Can GOP ignite American optimism?

If you want to know why the 2016 presidential race seems completely crazy right now you can find all the answers in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, which paints a picture of an anxious and pessimistic America casting about for anyone who might have an idea for how to improve things.

The poll, which shows 65 percent of Americans think the nation is on the wrong track, explains why Donald Trump has caught fire in the GOP and why Hillary Clinton is having so much trouble maintaining her sense of inevitability in the Democratic primary.

Voters do not believe establishment candidates have the answers and want something different. The wrong-track number is near where it was in 1992 when Ross Perot briefly shot to national political stardom before giving way to a charismatic former Arkansas governor who promised to revive an America that had hit hard times.

The dour numbers also reflect a conundrum about the U.S. economy, which is growing at around 2.5 percent and creating jobs at a solid clip. But wages remain stuck and the only ones feeling very good right now are the very wealthy who have enjoyed much of the gains since the recession ended. The 5.3 percent jobless rate means basically nothing as a political indicator these days. The labor force is smaller and those in it are struggling just to maintain their current quality of life.

Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (C) walks out from among the pack of candidates mixing and mingling on stage, including U.S, Senator Lindsey Graham (L), Dr. Ben Carson (2nd L) and former New York Governor George Pataki (2nd R), after the conclusion of the Voters First Presidential Forum in Manchester, New Hampshire August 3, 2015.
Brian Snyder | Reuters

The so-called animal spirits that drive better economic cycles—on both the corporate and consumer front—never emerged during this recovery. And they may never do so. It's hard to see any development likely to shake the national malaise. And a government shutdown battle and possible debt limit crisis loom this fall. So do Fed rate hikes.

Read MoreUnhappy mood blankets 2016 campaign: Poll

All this presents both big hurdles for Clinton, Jeb Bush and the rest as well as big opportunities. If any candidate can sell Americans on an optimistic vision for better days ahead they will likely sail into the White House. It's probably not going to be Trump or Bernie Sanders. Trump's negatives are sky-high and many of those surveyed in national polls that put the billionaire up top will not actually show up in GOP primaries. And Sanders is a socialist.

But beyond them it is completely wide open. The GOP debate Thursday will be the first big chance for Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and the rest to take their shot at both exciting the base and convincing an angry electorate that America still has a new chapter and it's not far off.

Bush will attempt to seize this moment by talking up his 4 percent GDP growth target and touting his record on jobs and the budget in Florida. Walker, Rubio and the rest of the GOP field will also try to present themselves as alternatives to Trump with more concrete proposals for boosting growth.

Trump is a huge wild card in the debate. He could surprise with depth and substance on the issues. Or he could get blown out and seem shallow and bombastic. Or he could just slide by with short answers, a conservative strategy to try and convince skeptical GOP primary voters that he is really a serious possible nominee. Rival GOP campaigns have no idea what to expect from Trump. The billionaire has also said he has no idea what to expect of himself.

On the Democratic side, Clinton has bigger problems that just being tied to an economy that people pretty much hate. The former secretary of state's favorability ratings are underwater with 37 percent having a positive view of her and 48 percent negative. The email story is clearly taking a toll. And Clinton faces a hearing on the Benghazi attack this fall that will not help her numbers.

All this helps explain why Clinton went up on the air with gauzy biographical ads in Iowa and New Hampshire this week. The Clinton campaign cannot afford to see these numbers keep sinking. The more they do the more speculation will fly about Vice President Joe Biden getting into the race. People close to Biden tell me he would love to get in but is unlikely to do so unless Clinton really starts to fade. For now, the former first lady maintains a massive lead over Sanders. But what matters to Biden and other national Democrats are Clinton's numbers for the general election. If she struggles to keep her current big lead and continues to see her favorability rating drop, Biden could push the button.

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And even if that doesn't happen and Clinton sails to the nomination, she will have the tough task of convincing an anxious America to entrust the White House to Democrats for another four years. The GOP nominee—whoever it is—will have the inherent advantage of offering something new for a nation hungry for a change in direction.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.