Can Bernie Sanders re-create the magic? Vermont senator launches presidential bid

WASHINGTON — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the progressive iconoclast who emerged from the ideological fringe four years ago to build a movement that reshaped the Democratic Party, entered the race for the 2020 presidential nomination Tuesday.

Sanders announced his decision in an interview on Vermont Public Radio and in an email to supporters.

“We began the political revolution in the 2016 campaign, and now it’s time to move that revolution forward,” Sanders said in the radio interview.

He described President Donald Trump as a “pathological liar,” adding, “I also think he is a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, somebody who is gaining cheap political points by trying to pick on minorities, often undocumented immigrants.”

In announcing his bid, Sanders plunged into a very different race than the one he nearly upended in 2016, when he was the only progressive in a tiny field dominated by Hillary Clinton.

This time around, several other candidates will vie to represent the party’s left, and many progressives, including some former prominent supporters of his, are skeptical that Sanders is best suited to carry their mantle.

But his sustained popularity in early voting states, massive network of small donors and powerhouse digital operation, including a social media network far larger than any Democrat, give Sanders big advantages as the race gets underway.

“He’s got a very strong, loyal following,” said Joe Trippi, who has advised campaigns for several major Democrats. “It makes him somebody the rest of the field has to take very seriously, and who has a better shot than many of them at emerging as one of the three or four who actually competes long-term for the nomination.”

The transformative campaign the 77-year-old ran in the last presidential cycle drew masses of disaffected voters, including many millennials, to politics. The senator’s plans for expanding government, especially in guaranteeing health coverage, and his excoriations of the wealth of the richest Americans are now embedded in the Democratic Party’s platform.

As much as he changed the party’s positions, Sanders’ bigger impact may have been in proving the viability of a new model for how to sustain a campaign. He unleashed a small-donor revolution that enabled him to raise unprecedented amounts without taking a dime from corporate political action committees or getting trapped into the relentless cycle of big-dollar fundraisers.

Some 2.5 million Americans gave to him in the last presidential cycle. His invocation of the size of the average donation — $27 — became a staple of his campaign rallies, which routinely drew audiences that dwarfed those at events held by Clinton. More than 1.4 million people came out to see him.

If Sanders this time around raises only half the $228 million he did in his last run, he’d have a war chest most of the other candidates could only envy. Sanders is well positioned to get there, said Nicco Mele, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, who helped run the pioneering digital operation for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid.

“It is a big number,” Mele said, “but the easiest way to get there is through people who have already invested in you, and for them it is not that much money they are contributing.”

The question hanging over Sanders now is whether his moment has passed. Some of the same activists who helped propel Sanders’ campaign in 2016 have expressed ambivalence this time, as have some of the influential celebrities and politicians who once rallied behind him.

Last month, campaign workers from the 2016 effort spoke out about being sexually harassed and discriminated against by colleagues, and having their complaints ignored. The senator apologized in January, telling reporters he had been unaware of the allegations.

But a remark to CNN that he had not been on top of the situation because “I was little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case” to be elected reinforced the perception among Sanders’ critics that the senator is insufficiently serious about issues of harassment and discrimination.

Beyond those issues, the candidate who earlier had the lone voice in the field offering radical change will now be competing with equally high-profile Democrats offering bold policy visions.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was first out of the box with a New Year’s Eve announcement of an exploratory committee, and Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York all hope to compete for the backing of progressive voters. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas has grabbed the fancy of many younger voters.

Although their plans are in part inspired by the momentum Sanders built, they now threaten to overtake him.

Many activists in a party that skews increasingly diverse and younger are wary of nominating a white man who would be 79 by the time he would take office.

Sanders is from a state that is 95 percent white, and connecting with black voters proved a fatal challenge in his last run. Those voters will likely hold at least as much sway in the current contest; states in which African Americans make up a large share of those voting in the Democratic primary, including South Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana, are expected to be particularly influential in choosing the nominee.

“This is the big problem he still needs to solve,” Trippi said. “Given his policies, he should have had much broader appeal than he did in the minority community. … He just comes across as this angry old guy shouting, ‘Get off my lawn.’”

Yet Sanders is adept at defying the conventional wisdom — and even defying his own reputation. He’s retooled his approach to nonwhite voters, more effectively adopting the language of racial-justice advocates and unflinchingly labeling the president a racist, a declaration from which some other candidates have shied away.

The cantankerous septuagenarian who talks like a Luddite when he describes his own use of technology built one of the most potent online political networks in American history.

The innovation didn’t end on election day. The senator continued to expand his online reach in recent years in ways that sometimes have taken his potential primary rivals by surprise.

The Sanders digital reach eclipses that of other Democrats mulling a run. He has amassed 32.3 million followers on social media, according to rankings compiled by Acronym, a progressive digital advocacy firm. The next closest Democratic hopeful, Warren, does not have even half as many.

Interviews and town halls Sanders broadcasts on his Senate Facebook page routinely attract more than a million viewers. One recent example, a “Solving Our Climate Crisis” forum he held with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, was among the events progressives successfully leveraged to force House Democratic leaders to push climate change to a more prominent place on their agenda.

Overall, clips produced by the Sanders in-house television network, on a shoestring budget with barely any staff, attracted 800 million views in 2017, according to New York magazine. It was an audience bigger than that of CNN.

By Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times

Tribune News Service
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