Fewer than four years ago, Bernie Sanders arrived at the New Hampshire State House with his campaign lawyer to register for the state’s presidential primary. At the time, state election officials had signaled they might not let Sanders on the ballot because of his longtime affiliation as an independent.
“I am a Democrat now,” Sanders proclaimed to reporters at the State House in November 2015. And when asked whether he would run as a Democrat in all future elections, Sanders responded, “yes.”
Except, in the future, he didn’t. And as Sanders begins his second campaign for president — including, this weekend, his first trip to New Hampshire — he continues to contend with his party affiliation, or lack thereof.
Four years ago, Sanders ran in the Democratic primary, even though he was technically an independent — and a self-described Democratic socialist — allowing him to run as an insurgent to the party. But he enters the 2020 race as the Democratic Party’s front-runner in many public opinion polls, leaving some Democrats asking whether a self-described independent should be the party’s standard-bearer.
Last year, when it came time for Sanders to stand for reelection to the Senate in Vermont, he did what he has done since he sought the Burlington mayor’s office in 1980: He ran as an independent.
And things have only gotten more awkward recently. On Feb. 19, Sanders filed paperwork to run for president as a Democrat. On Monday, less than two weeks later, he filed separate paperwork to seek reelection for the Senate in Vermont in 2022, as a independent.
Last week, the Democratic National Committee introduced a “loyalty pledge” for presidential candidates to affirm and sign, including a line stating, “I am a Democrat.”
Sanders turned in his signed copy Tuesday afternoon, complete with a notary seal.
When asked for comment, the Sanders campaign noted that Sanders signed the DNC pledge and that Vermont doesn’t require party registration for voters.
At a CNN town hall last month, Sanders was asked why he was running as a Democrat even though he has never run as a Democrat except in the last presidential race.
“Let’s set the record straight. I am a member of the Democratic leadership in the United States Senate. I’ve been a member of the Democratic caucus in the Senate for the last 13 years and in the House for 16 years before that. [I] won the Democratic nomination in my state, but in Vermont, I have chosen to run as an independent because it goes way, way back,” Sanders answered.
In the end, not only did Sanders have no problem getting on the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary ballot, but he also scored the largest Democratic presidential primary win in that state since John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960. That win propelled his campaign through a primary season that reached all 50 states, caused his rival Hillary Clinton to alter her campaign platform, forced rule changes at the Democratic National Convention, and made once-in-a-generation adjustments to national presidential primary rules going forward.
During that process, his campaign manager reaffirmed that from then on, Sanders would be a Democrat for life.
“My client was not lying,” said Andru Volinsky, who served as the New Hampshire legal counsel to the Sanders campaign and joined him during his 2015 State House visit. “He promised to run as a Democrat, he did, and then he endorsed the ticket when he lost and campaigned for them after.”
Volinsky, who said he has not endorsed Sanders or anyone in the 2020 contest, believes that most voters don’t care about the technicality of his party affiliation.
“What attracted voters to him were the issues and the causes he talked about,” Volinsky said.
Today, the 77-year-old Sanders enters the 2020 race as the clear front-runner in the New Hampshire primary. A University of New Hampshire poll released this week showed Sanders leading the large field with 26 percent support, 4 points better than the second-place finisher, former vice president Joe Biden.
As Sanders tries to unite the party around him, it would be smart for the Vermont senator to put his dual partisan affiliations to bed, said Roger Lessard, the Hillsborough County Democratic Committee chairman who backed Sanders in 2016.
“By and large, more people would feel comfortable with backing him if he were an actual Democrat this time,” Lessard said. “I think a lot of people would wish he stopped playing around about it, especially now.”
And, while the national Democratic Party might be putting more pressure on him to align with their party, there is also an effort underway in New Hampshire to make room for his dual political existence.
With bipartisan support, a bill passed the New Hampshire House last week that would expand the requirements to get on a primary ballot beyond just being a member of a party to being “a recognized candidate for president in the party in which I desire to file.”
New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley supports the bill.
“What 2016 brought up were some potential concerns about party affiliation,” Buckley said. “Whatever title Senator Sanders wishes to affiliate himself with is less important than this voice being part of the debate.”