The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Election Class of 2016: How Bernie Sanders Became the Most Important Man in Politics

The Vermont Senator might not have a real shot at beating Hillary, but the effects of his revolution will be felt long after the polls close in 2016.

by Livia Gershon
Oct 12 2015, 9:00pm

Illustration by Drew Lerman

More from this series:
Election Class of 2016: Why America Is Waiting for Joe Biden
Election Class of 2016: Ted Cruz Is Crazy Like a Fox
Election Class of 2016: The New Civil Rights Activists Shaping the Democratic Race
Election Class of 2016: David Daleiden Is Revolutionizing Anti-Abortion Activism

[Editor's Note: In the run-up to the 2016 election, VICE will be profiling the individuals who are important to the presidential race. Some of them are famous, others you may not have heard of before—but all of them will have an outsize impact on how the country decides its future.]

Who is he? Bernie Sanders, 74, junior US senator from Vermont.

Do you know him? If you pay any attention to the bleeding left edge of US politics, or just have a soft spot for grumpy old men, then yes, you probably do know Sanders. Almost immediately after joining Congress in 1990, after running as a self-described Democratic socialist, Sanders started the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and he's been the rumpled, Brooklyn-accented embodiment of anti-corporate populism ever since. Sanders likes to talk about raising the minimum wage, taxing the rich, and generally making the United States of America look more like Sweden. He doesn't like being asked about his hair, or how he takes his coffee.

Is he running? Oh, yes. Despite spending most of his political life as an Independent, Sanders is running in the Democratic presidential race, challenging the party's heir apparent, Hillary Clinton, in the race for the 2016 nomination. And he's doing surprisingly well. Over the past five months, Sanders has gone from single-digit numbers in the polls to about 25 percent. In New Hampshire, the first primary state, he's actually been polling well above Hillary Clinton among Democratic voters. The difference between the state and national numbers is partly because New Hampshire neighbors Sanders' home state, and is similarly chock-full of the white, progressive Democrats who make up his base. But it also has to do with name recognition. While Sanders has been campaigning hard in early voting states, a lot of voters elsewhere in the country still have no idea who he is.

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Why does he matter? Once die-hard liberals finally admitted that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was never, ever going to jump into the race, Sanders became the standard-bearer for the economic populist wing of the Democratic Party—a group that has become a lot bigger and more visible since the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street.

Of course, a scenario in which Sanders becomes president is approximately as easy to imagine as one where Carly Fiorina climbs onto a dragon to wreak vengeance on Donald Trump. Still, the fact that a grumpy Vermont socialist is doing as well as he is in the 2016 race says something about the current political moment, and voters' deep dissatisfaction with the Washington status quo.

Who wants him? Sanders' best-known endorsers include: Cornel West; the founders of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream; Will Ferrell;rapper Lil B; and teenage presidential candidate Deez Nuts. In other words, the guy is not making big inroads in the political establishment. He's received exactly zero endorsements from fellow senators and just two from members of Congress. Even labor unions, which Sanders has unfailingly supported, have for the most part declined to support him over Clinton, opting instead to get behind the likely Democratic nominee. And unless Sanders can somehow convince party leaders that he has a chance in hell of winning, his support among the Establishment will likely remain limited.

Still, Sanders is racking up impressive support among rank-and-file voters, and particularly the small donors who make up the Democratic Party's activist base. Between July and September, Sanders received $26 million in small-dollar donations, giving Clinton an unexpected bit of fundraising competition. One of his major talking points is about the evil influence of corporations and billionaires onthe democratic process, so it's perhaps not surprising that he isn't raking in money from those sources. But when he claims to be running a grassroots campaign, the man is not lying.

Who opposes him? So far, the Democratic race has had the feel of a genteel dinner party, particularly in contrast to the professional wrestling match happening on the Republican side. Clinton has insisted she has "no interest" in attacking Sanders, although a Super PAC that backs her did circulate a negative email trying to tie the Vermont Senator in with the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. The truth is, as long as they're not really afraid he could win, Clinton and her supporters have little reason to go after Sanders. In fact, his presence in the race could make her eventual nomination feel less like a coronation without really threatening her.

One source of real tension for Sanders has been his interactions with Black Lives Matter protestors, who disrupted a couple of his events over the summer. By Sanders' own account, he didn't handle the situation particularly well, and it didn't help that some of his supporters responded to the incidents by behaving like real jackasses on Twitter. Sanders doesn't get a lot of support from black Democrats in general, although that may have something to do with the fact that lots of voters outside of lily-white New England still don't know who he is. More recently, Sanders has met with Black Lives Matter activists and begun speaking more about racial justice, which could help him mend some fences with the movement.

When is his moment? February 9. That's date of the primary election in New Hampshire, where Sanders is polling much better than elsewhere in the country. The Clinton campaign has spent millions of dollars and hired 50 people to work for her campaign there, but her numbers are now so bad that some of her supporters are now urging her to give the state up for lost and concentrate her efforts elsewhere. Of course, even if Sanders won New Hampshire, he could easily go on to tank in the following primaries. But a great showing in the state would boost his name recognition and maybe pull some skeptical mainstream Democrats toward him.

Of course, it's a long time until February, and a lot could change by then. Most obviously, if Vice President Joe Biden jumps into the race, it will complicate decisions for Democrats in 2016. It's also always hard to tell whether a grassroots campaign like Sanders' will heat up or cool down as time goes on.

In some ways, though, the most interesting thing about Sanders isn't the tiny chance that he could win the nomination. He often gets compared with this year's other surging outsider, Donald Trump, but a more apt comparison might be libertarian superstar Ron Paul. Like Paul, Sanders is building a movement of young people around a distinct political philosophy well outside the Washington mainstream. His campaign could be both a path into political work for thousands of young activists and a proving ground for the appeal of progressive populism in America.

In any case, the good news is that we'll probably get at least a few months of watching Sanders snipe at reporters for asking stupid questions and get visibly annoyed at the campaign rituals of parades and baby-kissing.

Follow Livia Gershon on Twitter. Illustrator Drew Lerman is also on Twitter, so follow him too.