This is the second in our series of early analysis of the candidates vying for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. We will try and provide 1-3 of these a week covering all of the candidates.
Hometown: Brooklyn NY, although now resides in Burlington, VT
77 years old, Senator from Vermont, Former U.S Representative, Mayor of Burlington, VT
Bernie Sanders has been a liberal activist for over four decades now. First elected to the House of Representatives in 1991, and a fixture on liberal “Air America” radio during the ’90s and ’00s, he built up a large following for his consistent ideology; Sanders is a self-described Socialist, and an Independent who happens to caucus with the Democrats. During a period where many Democrats played to the middle and the DLC loomed large in Dem politics, Sanders’ consistently liberal positions appealed to a large portion of the Dem base.
Running in 2016 as the alternative to Hillary Clinton, who often focused on the general election, Sanders was able to carve out a large, loyal base of voters, and a national following. However, the division between Hillary and Bernie voters was hard and real, and the convention was far from conciliatory. When hacked DNC emails showed a process perceived as tilted toward Clinton, many Bernie supporters felt vindicated and refused to back Clinton.
Bad blood continued into the 2018 election when Sanders, remained an “Independent” on the ballot for his Senate seat in Vermont, and refused to accept the Democratic nomination.
Path to the Nomination
More than any other candidate, Sanders’ path is the most apparent. Keep the voters that he had in 2016 and build on it, while continuing to put his thumb on the liberal wing of the party. He didn’t do particularly well with minorities or women voters in 2016, but in 2020 can hone his message to appeal to those groups. The more liberal voters in the Dem nomination states, or the more liberal issues drive the debate, the more likely he is to do well. He has a hokey appeal in Midwest caucus states, and should do excellently in New England, so an Iowa win and NH blowout are not out of the question. From there it’s all momentum.
His main rivals will be those that appeal to the same white, higher educated, middle class liberal demographic. Elizabeth Warren is clearly trying to focus on the same group of voters, and now Pete Buttigieg is starting to make some inroads. But the bulk of Bernie’s supporters, the “Berniacs,” are extremely loyal, and barring some major issue or a campaign debacle, are likely to stay with Bernie.
Sanders’ early polls consistently show him having a solid 20% support nationally, and also in many early caucus states. Right now, the only comparable candidate is Joe Biden, although Biden’s base is largely different from Sanders.
The big question is can he expand that base? Would a highly energetic, more millenial, activist youth movement want to back a 77 year old Socialist who technically isn’t even a Democrat except when he runs for President? The early indicators seem to be a “maybe yes,” but as other candidates get covered with more frequency and name I.D of other candidates grows, can Sanders hold on to build a winning coalition? Only time will tell.