Could Bernie Sanders lose in 2020 because of his success in 2016?
Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who nearly toppled Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, launched a campaign for the 2020 presidential nomination on Tuesday, plunging into a diverse and crowded field in which other candidates are echoing his themes and attempting to claim the progressive mantle.
A 77-year-old independent from Vermont, Sanders retains a large and loyal following and a formidable grass-roots fund-raising operation, thanks to the insurgent campaign he ran against Clinton in 2016, when he won 22 states, many by landslide margins.
But unlike that head-to-head matchup with a front-runner firmly ensconced in the political establishment, this campaign will test whether Sanders can emerge as the progressive favorite in a wide-open contest that features prominent Democrats pushing his signature issues of Medicare for all, free college tuition, and a $15 minimum wage.
Sanders told his supporters “it is time to complete that revolution” they started three years ago, now that his ideas have caught on with the American public.
“Three years ago, during our 2016 campaign, when we brought forth our progressive agenda we were told that our ideas were ‘radical’ and ‘extreme,’ ” Sanders wrote in an e-mail to supporters announcing his second White House bid. “Well, three years have come and gone. And, as a result of millions of Americans standing up and fighting back, all of these policies and more are now supported by a majority of Americans.”
In an interview with Vermont Public Radio, Sanders responded to concerns that he no longer represents the “face of the new Democratic Party,” as some Democrats have rallied around the notion of nominating a younger candidate, a woman, or a person of color to challenge President Trump in 2020.
“We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender, and not by their age,” Sanders said. “I think we have got to try to move us toward a nondiscriminatory society, which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for.”
Jonathan Tasini, a 2016 Sanders campaign surrogate who wrote the book “The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America,” said Tuesday that Sanders’ success in making his agenda part of the Democratic mainstream might be the biggest obstacle he faces in 2020.
“He might not win, oddly enough, because in 2016 he won the debate over the direction of the party,” Tasini wrote in an e-mail. “Most, if not all, of the Democratic candidates for the nomination are singing from Bernie’s policy playbook: Medicare For All (or some close variation like ‘open Medicare to anyone 50 and older’); free college tuition; taxing the uber-wealthy.”
Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown of Ohio might be the two candidates most closely aligned with Sanders’ message of fighting for workers against the power of billionaires and the corporate elite. But other Democrats such as Senators Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Cory Booker of New Jersey have also embraced policies popularized by Sanders such as Medicare for all.
“Look, I think Bernie is terrific,” Warren said Monday night in Glendale, Calif., where she was asked what she would say to voters who supported Sanders in 2016 and are considering supporting her in 2020. “We were friends long, long before I ever got involved in politics, and I think it’s great that Democrats are out there, talking about ideas. We are the party of ideas.”
Warren and Sanders may battle in particular for support in New Hampshire, which both consider their political backyards. Sanders won the state by 22 points in the 2016 primary. But some who backed him there are eyeing other candidates this time around.
“I don’t see him getting as much traction as last time,” said Christopher Sebastian Parker, a political scientist at the University of Washington. “And especially right now, in 2019 going on 2020, where he’s an older, straight, white man. Oh, no. Not in 2020. That’s not going to work. I think the electorate, especially in the middle and on the left, is going to want something different.”
Despite being a longtime independent, Sanders has worked with Democrats in the Senate, but has never officially joined the party.
Sanders’ supporters argue that he remains the most authentic and credible champion for progressives because of his unwavering record of fighting for government-funded health care and refusal to accept corporate money — stances that some Democrats have only recently embraced.
“It’s almost comical to see them claiming, ‘Oh, yes. I’m a progressive, too,’ ” said Phil Fiermonte, Sanders’ former state director and senior campaign adviser in 2016. “Well, Bernie has been there fighting the fight for a long time, consistently and effectively. And I don’t think the others can claim that. Maybe they’re bona fide progressives now. I have my doubts.”
The campaign said it had raised $3.3 million from 120,000 donors within the first nine hours of Sanders’ announcement. Sanders also hired Faiz Shakir, national political director of the ACLU, to be campaign manager.
As the party looks to mobilize a diverse coalition of voters, Sanders is facing questions about his ability to appeal to black voters. In 2016, he lost to Clinton in Southern states such as Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, where blacks comprise a significant portion of the Democratic electorate. Some observers have since criticized Sanders’ outreach to black voters as lackluster and inconsistent.
Parker said Tuesday that the situation might be even more dire now that Sanders is competing against Booker and Harris.
“He could go to as many black churches as he wants to — it’s not going to work, not when you’ve got two black candidates,” said Parker, whose February 2016 column, “Why Bernie Will Burn Out in Dixie,” predicted Sanders’ struggle with black voters in the South.
Sanders has also publicly apologized to multiple women who told The New York Times and Politico that they were harassed by Sanders’ staffers while working on his 2016 campaign. Sanders has called the mistreatment “absolutely unacceptable.”
Sanders on Tuesday called Trump “a racist,” “a sexist,” and “a xenophobe” in an interview with CBS News. Trump, for his part, said he agrees with Sanders on trade, although “he doesn’t know what to do about it” and “we’re doing something very spectacular on trade.”
“Personally, I think he missed his time,” Trump said at the White House. “But I like Bernie.”