Sanders vaults from fringe to the heart of the fray

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has drawn huge crowds.
Ross D. Franklin/AP
Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has drawn huge crowds.

SOMEWHERE OVER THE AMERICAN WEST — It’s 7:20 a.m. and Bernie Sanders looks irritated. He’s already buckled into his economy seat on Delta Flight 4516 and an attendant just announced that the flight would sit on the runway for 30 minutes before taking off.

“Planes,” grumbled the Vermont senator. “Don’t get me started about airplanes.” Then he added, in a tone that sounded only half-joking, “This is when you want a private jet.”

Sanders’ insurgent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination doesn’t spring for charters like his top competitor — at least not yet. On this day he isn’t even flying nonstop, as he heads from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Phoenix via Minneapolis. If all goes well, he’ll just be a few minutes late to a forum at Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of liberals.


The weekend events — another rally is planned in Houston Sunday — is capping off Sanders’ best week so far in his increasingly credible quest for the nomination. Federal reports made public last week show he has raised more than $15 million for his campaign, beating every other presidential candidate from either party save Hillary Rodham Clinton (she hauled in about $46 million). He has gathered the money from an army of small donors that is larger than that of any other presidential candidate.

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And, as he pulled his roller bag out of the air-conditioned terminal into the blast of Phoenix heat Saturday morning, he was preparing to speak that evening before his largest crowd yet.

Through some combination of political skill, fortuitous timing, well-tuned messaging, and sheer luck this has become the Summer of Sanders — in which an unkempt 73-year-old man who isn’t even a member of the Democratic Party is mounting the strongest challenge to the Democratic establishment. He’s gone from being dismissed as a fringe candidate to having a huge early impact on the primary.

The self-described Democratic socialist flying coach is suddenly a star. Clinton aides have acknowledged concern about losing ground in Iowa and New Hampshire, or both, to Sanders. One poll has shown him within 19 percentage points of Clinton in the Hawkeye State and another has him within eight points of her in New Hampshire.

But, will it last? Or, as one of his strategists put it, could the next few months bring the fall of Sanders?


Already the Sanders campaign infrastructure is creaking under the weight of the unexpected interest in his candidacy. Tens of thousands of bumper stickers were on back order. Venues for rallies need to be changed multiple times as the RSVPs pile high, and crowds swell. And most importantly, to survive, he’ll need to expand his support beyond the liberal wing of the Democratic Party — and persuade the party that he should be the standard bearer.

Sanders contends that the national caricature of him as a hippy-dippy socialist from the People’s Republic of Burlington, where he was mayor from 1981 to 1989, is largely inaccurate. He jokes about it — saying that he doesn’t own a pair of Birkenstocks and never would “in a million years.” He says that his message resonates most loudly with blue-collar workers, not the tie-dye set.

On Friday night in a vast hall in Cedar Rapids before 1,300 people, that appeal was on full display. Sanders shared the stage for the first time with the other four Democratic candidates who took turns speaking to the audience. He won multiple standing ovations for a thundering rant against the inordinate power of the super-rich. He called for a “political revolution” and predicted that without it, the country was heading toward an oligarchy.

“Nothing will get done unless millions of people stand up and roundly proclaim enough is enough,” Sanders said, gripping the lectern with both hands. “This country belongs to all of us, and not a handful of billionaires.”

It was a classic display of Sanders’ freewheeling approach, the aura of blunt authenticity that makes him seem a refreshing change from Clinton’s poll-tested messages and reluctance to offer detailed positions on issues of the day.


“He really connected,” said Steve Hultman, a 65-year-old retired teacher from Council Bluffs, Iowa. “Hillary has to go to work. She has to get the facts and framing to excite the Democratic side of the party.”

‘This country belongs to all of us and not a handful of billionaires.’

Bernie Sanders, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination and a senator from Vermont 

Some part of Sanders’ popularity flows directly from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party. He only began to rise in polls of probable voters when the Massachusetts senator’s name was dropped from their surveys after it became clear that she wouldn’t run. For him as for her, not having to worry much about moderate support is liberating; Clinton has no such luxury. And it doesn’t really tell against Sanders at this early stage that a liberal message like his may not play well, or at all, in some states a candidate must win to gain nomination or election.

But there’s more to Sanders than the Warren echo. Unlike others in the current field, he has been quietly building a national grass-roots network for years. His 2012 Senate campaign finance report looks remarkably similar to his presidential one last week, with most contributions coming from small donors across the country. He raised $7.2 million for that election, swamping his Republican opponent, who took in about $135,000.

While he was being written off in 2014 by the news media and other candidates focused on Warren instead, Sanders road-tested his message. In Los Angeles, he recalled, there were standing-room-only crowds this year well before announcing his candidacy. In Texas, so many people came to hear him that a traffic jam of supporters headed for the venue made it difficult for him to get to the event himself.

Still, those around Sanders weren’t sure he was going to run even weeks before his April 30 announcement. “As late as late April, if Bernie had called and said ‘we’re not doing this’ I would not have been shocked,” said Tad Devine, a longtime Sanders ally and a political consultant.

There’s a limit to the revolution Sanders is pushing: The senator won’t mount an independent bid for president. No matter how the crowds swell. “We’re doing this within the party system,” he said again Saturday on the Minneapolis leg of his trip.

Keeping it simple

Sanders’ plane landed in Minneapolis with about 30 minutes to get his connecting flight. One passenger positioned himself near the end of the jet bridge to get a photo of him getting off the plane. He paused for selfies with several others as they all waited for luggage checked at the gate.

Tim Schoon
Lisa Fontana took a selfie with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at a Democratic Party event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Unlike Clinton’s container-ship-sized campaign organization with more than 300 on staff, Sanders has a much smaller operation. On Saturday he traveled with only his campaign manager, his communications director, a videographer, and his wife. He figured out most of the logistics himself — securing boarding passes for the group and leading everyone through the Minneapolis airport from one terminal to the other.

The campaign pays 25 full-time staff members in Iowa and rents offices in 10 different towns. Sanders has just 10 full-time staffers in Vermont, 5 in Washington, and 4 in New Hampshire, plus 11 paid interns in Vermont and New Hampshire.

He revels in this relative lack of professional help. To make his point, he briefly commandeered an interview with a reporter last week in Washington.

“Ask me who my campaign finance director is,” he said over coffee in a Senate cafeteria.

“We don’t have one. Ask me who my pollster is,” he said. “We don’t have one.” He said he writes his own direct mail.

That’s not to say Sanders has a consultant-free campaign. He’s soaked up some talent from President Obama’s team. The names include Scott Goodstein, an online director for Obama’s first presidential race, and Arun Chaudhary, another veteran of the 2008 Obama campaign team who was Obama’s first videographer.

Teamwork pays off

Should this team’s work pay off and Sanders becomes even more viable, the target on his candidacy will grow. On June 25 a super PAC linked to former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, another declared Democratic candidate, spent about $10,000 on online ads critical of Sanders’ record on gun control, which is, for a Democrat, notably friendly to gun owners.

Sanders’ team fought back, using the same rhetoric that Warren so effectively employs against her many critics: Frame the attack as an assault on the progressive movement and raise buckets of cash off of it.

The day after the ads began, Sanders’ campaign blasted an e-mail to supporters requesting help. Within 48 hours they’d raised more than $800,000, according to a source familiar with his fund-raising.

But by far the most talked about aspect of Sanders’ candidacy is the size of the crowds — it comes as a shock even to the candidate.

“You walk into an arena and find 10,000 people looking at you . . . ” he said in an interview, trailing off. Then he turned to Michael Briggs, his charmingly beleaguered press aide.

“How many RSVPs do we have now in Phoenix?” he asked. “10,000?”

The swell forced the campaign to move the event twice. The same thing happened in Portland, Maine, where he ended up speaking to more than 7,500. And in Madison, Wis., where he spoke to a crowd about 10,000. And in Denver, where he spoke to about 5,000.

Putting this many supporters in a room takes work. The campaign e-mails supporters who live near events, and they ask an enthusiastic Reddit community to spread the word.

There’s a practical reason for holding these events. Sanders hasn’t spent much time building the relationships within the Democratic Party leaders at the state level that can help propel a national candidacy.

“We need to build organization, particularly in relatively early states,” Devine said.

On Saturday — when Sanders finally arrived at Netroots — the work that he needs to do to appeal to the broader Democratic coalition was clear. A group of mostly African-American demonstrators protesting police brutality had heckled O’Malley, disrupting his speech.

Sanders knew he was walking into a difficult situation. “It’s this afternoon’s talk I’m worried about,” he said before walking on the stage — and faced some of the same angry chants, competing with the cheers.

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Scot Lehigh: The Bernie Sanders surge

Joan Vennochi: Hillary Clinton tries to hold off Bernie Sanders threat

Annie Linskey can be reached at