Since the beginning of his presidential campaign in 2015, Bernie Sanders, the junior senator from Vermont and the only self-identified political independent in the U.S. Senate, has traveled along a remarkable trajectory; he’s gone from being a far-left, long-shot candidate with scant public support to a media darling and frontrunner in at least one national poll of Democratic voters, edging out establishment favorite Hillary Clinton by three points.
For the last 35 years, Sanders has self-identified as an independent or Socialist candidate not affiliated with either major political party, only declaring himself a Democrat to run on that party’s ticket in the 2016 presidential race.
All of this has happened in just nine and a half months, culminating in Sanders’ near tie with Clinton in the 2016 Iowa caucus and victory over her in the 2016 New Hampshire primary.
What looked like a sure path to the nomination for Clinton nearly a year ago has now become an intense conflict as the candidates gear up for Super Tuesday, March 1, when 11 states (including seven Southern ones, where Clinton has a strong advantage in polls) hold primaries and caucuses and 1017 delegates are awarded.
For Clinton, things are looking a lot tougher than they were not long ago, on January 1, when she was polling more than 20 percentage points higher than Sanders in places like Nevada, a state where Clinton won by just a few percentage points.
How did Sanders gain so much ground so fast? (Sanders has gotten to this point faster than Obama did in 2008 when he beat Clinton.) The answer is likely threefold:
First, Clinton is perceived by a good percentage of the electorate as corrupt and less than honest about her cozy relationship with Wall Street, the oil industry, the pharmaceutical industry, Big Agriculture, and just about any other industry with lots of lobbying dollars to spend.
The private email server scandal that she’s testified about on at least four occasions has not gone away, despite Sanders’ proclaiming that neither he nor the American people are still interested in it.
In fact, as time goes on and further facts are revealed, it now appears that Clinton’s culpability in the matter is greater than she initially represented, and a significant portion of her denials are turning out to be lies. In terms of scandals, this one doesn’t seem like it will be disappearing anytime soon, with rumors swirling that the FBI is investigating and the Justice Department may have a subpoena up its sleeve.
Just recently, on the CBS Evening News, Clinton wouldn’t categorically deny that she would ever lie to the American people or say that she never had, instead declaring somewhat vaguely, “I have always tried to [tell the truth]” and “I don’t believe I ever will [lie to the American public].”
Both of these are lawyer-speak hedge statements that are not flat denials, and both only add fuel to the fire in terms of convincing the public that the former Secretary of State is not someone they can trust.
Second, the momentum Sanders gained when he virtually tied with Clinton in Iowa and trounced her campaign in New Hampshire cannot be understated. Voters who may not have heard of him or cared about what he had to say previously are starting to listen to him.
His campaign, which was poked fun at by establishment insiders and not taken seriously by the media a year ago (when he was polling in the single digits or less in many states), has grown legs.
The press is eating up the vigor and energy of young voters with their creative videos, social media campaigns and viral propaganda exhorting people to “Feel the Bern” of Sanders’ engines of indignation.
It didn’t help that Clinton stumbled badly when her old friends Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright attempted in public speeches to accuse young women of being traitors to feminism by supporting Sanders. In fact, this brouhaha got magnified in the press and hurt Clinton badly, despite both women later apologizing for their remarks.
Third, the American public is not as enamored with Hillary Clinton’s policies of continuing Obamacare and other administration initiatives as they are with Sanders’ pie-in-the-sky proposals of free college education, low-cost health care, a reduction of military spending, raising the minimum wage, etc.
How he’ll pay for those giveaways is a big, fat question mark, but voters generally care less about such niceties when oversized, juicy carrots such as these are dangled in front of them.
The stagnation and decline of real wages to middle-class voters has created a palpable sense of anti-establishment anger that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been quick to tap into. In fact, many pundits would say (especially concerning Sanders) that they’ve built their candidacies around it. Indeed, it often seems that every other word out of Sanders’ mouth is “billionaires.”
In a stunning poll, 43 percent of expected voters in the Iowa Democratic caucus self-identified as “socialist” rather than “capitalist” (the latter term scored only 38 percent of the tally) when asked.
It’s worth noting that for more than three decades, Sanders has consciously identified himself as a “Democratic Socialist,” and instead of running from that label as other Democrats in his shoes might be tempted to do, he continues to flaunt it as a badge of pride to voters in his campaign.
With voters like these, who needs the Soviet Union? Perhaps the U.S.A. can become a satellite state. (And maybe Sanders can claim that he’s running for Secretary of the American Socialist Party rather than for President of the United States.)
Of course, all these factors don’t ignore that Clinton still has several big advantages going for her as far as the Democratic nomination is concerned.
Firstly, she has a massive campaign war chest financed by Wall Street, big banks, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Just-About-Anything, beating Sanders’ take from mostly small donors by more than two to one.
Secondly, her support among minority voters in the Super Tuesday batch of states following the South Carolina primary is high. Much of them represent a key voting bloc that swept Obama into office in 2008 and 2012.
If Clinton can continue to hold sway over these voters and convince them that she, not Sanders, will cater to their interests, she stands a good chance of establishing a strong delegate advantage that will be difficult to overcome in the latter part of the campaign.
And thirdly, due to her strong party ties and influence, the majority of Democratic “superdelegates,” who are allowed to vote according to their opinion and not according to the mandate of any popular majority, are likely to be in Clinton’s pocket.
Sanders supporters, sensing this, have begun filing online petitions to have superdelegates forced to follow popular voting, but this is not likely to result in any collective action (although individual superdelegates have given indications they may compromise on their positions with enough voter lobbying).
But even if Clinton does capture the lead in the near term, Sanders’ polling numbers are going to make it a long, hard slog for her to the finish line, due to Democratic party rules of awarding delegates in many primaries on a proportional basis rather than a winner-take-all one (which is common in GOP primaries).
In fact, there’s already discussion among race watchers that even if he loses the party nomination, Sanders has an excellent chance of being able to write some of the Democratic convention platform, as Jesse Jackson did in 1988 when he won 13 states in his battle against eventual party nominee Michael Dukakis. Some pundits say this infighting even helped contribute to Dukakis’ defeat that year to George H.W. Bush.
Democratic party insiders may do well to look at polls pitting Sanders or Clinton against increasingly likely Republican nominee Trump. In many surveys, Clinton loses to Trump, while in some, Sanders beats him decisively.
Even Republican party pollsters concede Sanders is a much tougher opponent for whoever their nominee ends up being than Clinton would be. A Trump/Sanders contest would be a real mud fight, with party lines drawn extremely sharply, and the extremes of both parties would attempt to pull the country’s moderates further and further away from the center.
If Sanders were to pick Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as his running mate (assuming she agreed to join him), this contrast would be even more well-defined. Throw in the prospect of current and/or future Supreme Court nominations being chosen by the next president and a possible Michael Bloomberg candidacy in the wings, and this year’s presidential race is looking like a real barn ‘Berner.’