Bernie Sanders's 2020 Run Is Going to Be a Lot Harder Than 2016
The Vermont senator has officially entered the race, but can he recapture the momentum he had when going up against Hillary Clinton?
Bernie Sanders with a supporter in 2016. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty
"I'm running for president."
Bernie Sanders announced his 2020 run Tuesday morning on NPR and social media, promising "an unprecedented and historic grassroots campaign" that would once again upend the political order in the Democratic Party and the country as a whole. Running for president for the second time in four years, Sanders is betting that his program of liberal social democracy that almost upset Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary will be enough to carry him to the nomination this time around against a much larger field of Democrats. Sanders, whose prioritization of economic equality and social justice has made him one of the country's most popular politicians, has a built-in base of supporters and high name recognition from the last race.
Still, he's headed into choppy waters. The Vermont senator is already weathering a storm centered around multiple sexual harassment scandals involving aides who served on his 2016 campaign, and he'll also have to contend with a group of candidates who are poised to siphon off his support. In addition, Sanders will face a party establishment still rooting for him to lose.
Winnie Wong, a cofounder of the political advocacy group People for Bernie, told VICE that the establishment needs to wake up. Attacks thrown at Sanders about his positions on racial versus economic justice and his electability (both long-running criticisms of Sanders) show that the party is more interested in beating Bernie than beating Trump.
"Democratic and Independent voters of all races could support him for President and party insiders are out of touch with that reality," Wong said in an email.
But not all former Sanders supporters feel that way. Masha Mendieta, California outreach director for the 2016 Sanders campaign, told VICE that she sees the Vermont senator's chances at the nomination dwindling.
"I think people are overestimating his support," said Mendieta. "After 2016, a lot of his supporters splintered off into different parties, focused on local politics instead, shifted into issue-based activism, or slid back into disillusionment once he sidled closer with the DNC establishment. True or not, that's the reality of how the last two years played out among the grassroots."
Sanders’s insurgent 2016 candidacy, and the party base activism that came with it, has pushed the party to take several left-leaning stances—Senate Democrats helped pass a Sanders-backed bill calling for an end to US involvement in the Yemen war, and Democrats moved to strip some of the power of superdelegates in choosing the party's presidential nominee. This movement comes especially in contrast to the direction of the party in the past three decades, and there’s been a backlash. Third Way, a centrist DC-based think tank, started to attack Sanders even before he officially declared his candidacy, claiming that the policies he promotes, like free college and a single-payer healthcare system, are electoral suicide.
"Sen. Sanders' ideas were crushed in the midterms - they're not the way to win," the organization tweeted in December.
The Sanders message terrifies the wing of the party represented by Third Way, so much so that the group brought conservative Democrats together in Columbus, Ohio, last June for "Opportunity 2020," a forum where 250 Democrats from across the country met to discuss strategies to beat back the progressive tide in general, and Sanders in particular.
Attendees of the Third Way retreat told reporters they were "sick of losing" elections and placed the blame for those failures squarely on the party's progressive wing. (The event was held before Democrats took back the House of Representatives in the midterms.) The general mood of the affair was summed up by Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, who has indicated he may run for president himself.
"You're not going to make me hate somebody just because they're rich," Ryan joked to the gathering. “I want to be rich!"
Neil Sroka, communications director for the pro-Sanders PAC Democracy for America, said that Democratic power centers have it in for Sanders, and that could threaten his chances.
"It's true that the establishment has its knives out for Bernie," said Sroka. "You're seeing that in terms of the effort to boost Beto O'Rourke."
O'Rourke became a flashpoint for the 2020 race in December, after his surprisingly close loss in a Texas US Senate race fueled speculation he could be a top-tier 2020 presidential candidate. Criticism of the former Texas Congressman generated backlash; Neera Tanden, the head of progressive group the Center for American Progress who has defended O’Rourke against criticism from his left, implied that the focus on Texan’s donations from oil and gas industry employees was directed by Sanders's camp.
“Oh look," wrote Tanden. "A supporter of Bernie Sanders attacking a Democrat. This is seriously dangerous. We know Trump is in the White House and attacking Dems is doing Trump’s bidding. I hope Senator Sanders repudiates these attacks in 2019.”
Tanden didn't reply to a request for comment. But her comments on social media don't reflect CAP's position, said Daniella Leger, the organization's senior vice president for communications and strategy. "Neera’s tweets are personal to her," Leger said.
In a statement, Navin Nayak, former director of opinion research for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and today the executive director for CAP's Progress Action Fund, said that the group was looking forward to the primary and that Sanders would have a lot of support if he won the race.
“In a broad and talented field, there’s no question that if Senator Sanders gets in he’d have a lot of assets to draw on," said Nayak. "We are excited to watch that robust 2020 debate unfold in a way that strengthens the party and ensures that President Trump is a one-term president.”
But even if the party rallies around Sanders in the event of him coming out on top in the primary, it’s clear that the more moderate establishment will hope to reject him and his message before it gets to that point.
What drove voters in 2016 was, in part, Sanders's populist and inclusive agenda. Thus, said Sroka, the Vermont senator would enter the 2020 race with probably the highest floor of support and a group ready for the race after being battle-tested in the tough campaign in 2016.
"The question is, where is his ceiling?" Sroka said. "And is there a ceiling?"
Sanders supporters like Wong think the sky's the limit. Wong detailed the Senator's advantages in an email, citing Sanders's name recognition, the small donor money machine that's already in place, and the organizing capabilities of Sanders's team.
"In 2016, Bernie Sanders' volunteers self organized 80,000 events, made 85 million phone calls; knocked on 5 million doors and sent 10 million peer-2-peer text messages," Wong wrote. "This should give you an idea of the power of the Sanders grassroots forces."
"He would head into 2020 with all systems go and a highly skilled volunteer base of tens of thousands of grassroots volunteer leaders who will know exactly what they need to do," added Wong.
But he’ll also be facing a much different environment than he was during his surprisingly strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016. The field will be crowded with party favorites and there are closed primaries—contests that non-Democrats cannot vote in—in 18 states, with two right at the top of the season.
With Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand already in the mix, and Senator Sherrod Brown expected to join the fray, there's competition for Sanders's lefty base. He'll have to contend with a number of other candidates that are both younger than him and have their sights set on the same voters.
The wide-open field will present challenges for Sanders, who benefitted in 2016 by being able to make a clear distinction between himself and Clinton. The two candidates represented different visions for the party and Sanders made a credible play for an insurgent candidate against the establishment favorite—but that promise of "political revolution" is no longer a viable selling point in a party where the culture has been shaped by Sanders, even if the senator himself remains a divisive figure. (Sanders and his office did not provide comment on the record for this article.)
Underscoring those changes is a December report from the New York Times which found that not all former Sanders supporters are automatic backers this time around. “It’s not a given that I’m going to support Bernie just because I did before,” Lucy Flores, a board member of Our Revolution and former Nevada assemblywoman, told the Times.
Compounding the difficulty presented by that potentially eroding support, Sanders will face closed caucuses in two of the first four contests, Iowa and Nevada, in which only registered Democrats can vote, depriving Sanders of any advantage he’d have among independent voters. In the first month of primaries, momentum is essential—and if Sanders can't make a strong showing in those two states, he might lose out in New Hampshire, where he won by double digits in 2016. Mixed and open primaries don't necessarily mean that Sanders will win those states, either, as voters will have to be motivated to come out in large numbers.
And then there are the harassment scandals involving allegations of misconduct and a culture of misogyny from the 2016 campaign. Sanders had to weather a barrage of accusations of sexism from Clinton supporters last time around, and though many of the attacks were substance-free, reporting over the last two years—including an investigative article from this writer at HuffPost in December 2017—indicates that the campaign was not the best place for women (nor was its misconduct unique; the Clinton campaign also had issues around abuse and harassment).
Mendieta, who was herself one of the victims of harassment in the 2016 campaign and detailed the experience in a March 2017 post on Medium, said that Sanders's response to the scandals reflects poorly on the senator. In January, Sanders told CNN's Anderson Cooper that he "was little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case" for the nomination and that was one of the reasons for missing the allegations.
"If Bernie had handled this correctly, and he had so many opportunities to do so beginning two years ago when I first went public after being ignored behind the scenes, there would be no harassment scandal," Mendieta told VICE. "It could've been an example of leadership on this issue. Instead, it has been an unflattering revelation into him and his team."
Whatever the challenges faced by Sanders, the senator can't be counted out, said Democracy for America's Sroka. Pointing to the recent past, Sroka told VICE that while Sanders has an uphill battle to win the nomination, that doesn't make things different for the Vermont senator—and reports of his demise are almost certainly premature.
"The lesson from 2016 for anyone should be that the Democratic establishment underestimates Bernie Sanders at their peril," said Sroka.
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