This week Bernie Sanders, the maverick Independent Senator from Vermont, became the latest to toss his hat into the crowded ring that is the Democratic Primary. Whilst this makes Sanders the tenth major candidate to vie for the candidacy in some form, his announcement is perhaps the least surprising. Since his watershed run in 2016, which divided the Democratic Party and denied Clinton the easy coronation she’d been expecting, it’s been priced into the market that the Senator would attempt another run.
But for all this hyperbole and expectation, is a Sanders nomination still politically viable, or is Bernie already a busted flush?
It’s easy to deride such comments as short sighted, and justifiably so. After all, more than a few articles along these lines were written when Sanders launched his long-shot campaign in 2016. Bernie’s success then quickly proved such takes to be short sighted and out of touch, and the argument can therefore be made that we should apply that logic again.
But it’s precisely because of his past success that Sanders might find himself sidelined this time around. It’s undeniable that Bernie’s run shifted the Overton Window for US politics; concepts such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal would have been unconscionable for democratic candidates in 2015, and yet the majority of 2020 hopefuls, from Booker to Warren, have endorsed such policies in some form.
Bernie’s past campaign must be credited for this. He showed the Democratic establishment that there was an appetite for radical, left-leaning social and economic policy in the US. Trump’s eventual win in the Presidential Election solidified this view too. Voters want bold, structural action rather that nuanced tinkering around the edges.
Bernie stood out in 2016 because of his polemic juxtaposition to Clinton: he symbolised a break from the tradition of politics that Clinton’s career had made her synonymous with, a radical challenging the moderate orthodoxy. But the Democratic field’s leftward shift strips Sanders of this advantage.
Whilst he still remains an outsider in the technical sense (he sits in the chamber as an Independent, rather than a Democrat) he’s no longer ideologically radical to the electorate. He may have been the man to instigate such a movement, but one rarely gets points for being the architect, and as American entrepreneurialism has shown us in the past “you don’t need to be the first to market to win, you just need to be the best.”
It’s also conventional wisdom in US politics that candidates have a particular ‘window’ in which they can realistically seek the nomination; it’s what Michelle told Barack when the then-freshman Senator for Illinois was contemplating his run in 2006, and it’s what many are telling Beto O’Rourke after his headline-grabbing run against Ted Cruz last November. Whilst this creates an environment where even junior congressional politicians have a shot at high office, at also means that those who come close largely expend their political capital to do so.
With this in mind, we have to ask ourselves what reasons a voter might have for supporting Bernie in lieu of other candidates this time.
Many voters were attracted to Sanders’ policy agenda, which included higher corporate taxation, minimum wage increases for workers and a restructuring of market regulations. But these policies are largely mirrored by Elizabeth Warren, and in a head-to-head contest, it’s hard to see the benefits of choosing Sanders; he has a long history in Congress, but Warren’s background as a Harvard Academic and a founding force behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau gives her the credentials to back up her rhetoric.
Warren’s brand of ‘capitalism with a conscience’ also plays better to the general electorate than Sanders’ brand of ‘democratic socialism’. Further to this, Warren lacks the political baggage that Bernie carries. As much as his policies have become more palatable, there is a limit, and videos, such as the Senator for Vermont admitting that he helped advise the Nicaraguan Ortega regime in fighting the US, will do little to win him support.
The diverse nature of this primary field will likely pose an additional obstacle to the Senator’s ambitions too, and it’s something Sanders himself seems acutely aware of; during his candidacy announcement on Vermont Radio, he encouraged voters to look past racial and gendered factors in choosing their candidate, an unwise remark that uncomfortably echoed Howard Shultz’ naive assertion that he “doesn’t see race”.
Through no fault of his own, Sanders is running as an old, white man at a time when America is becoming tired of seeing old, white men in power. Against candidates like Kamala Harris, Sanders appears like far less of an exciting prospect, and at 77 hardly seems like a ‘fresh’ new face for political change by comparison.
More troubling too are the allegations of sexual misconduct related to Sanders’ 2016 campaign, including those against his former campaign manager Jeff Weaver, which are likely to give voters cause for concern. Further revelations are likely to rise to the surface as Sanders’ campaign continues, and he risks further toxifying a brand already muddied by the misogynistic behaviour of ‘Bernie Bros’ online unless he addresses them effectively.
Any major Democratic candidate seen to be running a campaign team with a clear “sexual harassment problem”, as one former staffer claims, is unlikely to make strong headway with those looking to move on from the toxic misogyny of the current administration.
This would all seem to suggest that Sanders’ bid has little chance of success, but this isn’t to say there aren’t already avenues for Bernie to capitalise on. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver points out, the Senator may be best served by taking the Trump path; the crowded democratic field is likely to split the vote in the majority of states. If Sanders is able to play to his base, he may be able to galvanise enough support to win a large number of these, much as Trump did in 2016.
Despite this, it’s clear that the Senator from Vermont enters a dramatically different field from the one he disrupted in 2016, one that leaves him far less room to make an impact. But recent history tells us that such analysis rarely holds up in the real world, and any number of incidental factors could quickly reorient the game-board. This contest won’t be an easy ride for Sanders, and he has a good chance of being knocked out once more. But that’s not to say the proverbial outsider doesn’t have an ace up his sleeve.