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Can Bernie Sanders Pick Up His Flagging Campaign?

Remember in 2016 when Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) almost won the Democratic presidential nomination? The iconoclastic politician with the old-school progressive platform caught the attention of a lot of Democratic voters.

This time around, it’s a different story. Sanders lags in third place behind former Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Vice President Joe Biden. His unusual youth appeal doesn’t seem to be enough to push him to the top of the heap.

Is the Sanders campaign in a downward spiral? Politico seems to think so, and they even say so in their article entitled, “Bernie Sanders Is in Trouble.”

The piece begins with the tale of a delegate approaching the senator at a rally with a typical theme among the Sanders campaign and its backers: the idea that everyone is against them.

Politico‘s Holly Otterbein retells the tale this way:

Daniel Clark, a delegate for him in 2016, wasn’t interested in talking about the general election. He wanted to know about the primary — and how Sanders was going to get through it.

“Since it seems like it’s going to be kind of the way that it was last time, where the field seems a little skewed against you, are you willing to take this to a contested convention?” he asks.

“We’re in this race to win it,” Sanders replies. “The most important thing is person-to-person contact, all right? It is everybody here reaching out to five other people and explaining to them the importance of the election and why you think I should win this election. And right now … we have here in Iowa incredible grassroots support.”

In 2016, Sanders relied heavily on word of mouth to alert voters to his “democratic socialist” message. But this year, he’s behind Biden, the standard-bearer of the Obama legacy, and a surging Warren. According to the Politico article, Sanders is counting on what he believes is his electability to push him over the edge, not just among Democrats but against Trump.

Otterbein asked the senator to make his case for electability, and Sanders relied on reliable left-wing talking points:

“Excellent question,” he says. “I’ll tell you why.” He won the Michigan and Wisconsin primaries in 2016, two Rust Belt states that were critical to Trump’s victory, and did “very, very well” in counties where Clinton lost to Trump, he says. Plus, he believes his message — “that we are prepared to take on the greed and corruption of the corporate elite” and pursue bold health care and climate change plans — will appeal not only to some of Trump’s supporters, but also inspire “huge voter turnout.” A campaign that’s the “same ol’, same ol’ — that does not create excitement and energy, that does not get these young people out to vote by the millions — is a losing campaign,” he says.

Otterbein points out several times in the piece that Sanders will need to change his ways to see different results but notes that his campaign isn’t willing to make many wholesale changes.

This time around, Sanders has spoken more about his personal life and the stories that have shaped him, and he has hired a more diverse staff than he had four years ago. At the same time, he’s still pushing similar talking points to last time, and his demeanor remains the same irascible, “get off my lawn” charmer that he’s always been. He’s also making a key point of the fact that his policies haven’t moved much with the times.

As this campaign cycle has shaped up, Warren has become a force. Sanders hasn’t done enough to distinguish himself from her, say sources in the article, and he’s not willing enough to criticize her. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Warren has staying power, but if Sanders can’t do enough to show how he’s different from her, he won’t gain much more traction either.

One insider who spoke to Otterbein makes these points loud and clear:

Bob Handel, a volunteer for Sanders in Iowa, says the senator has made the Democratic Party remember what it actually is. “He’s more of a Democrat than most members of Congress. He’s an FDR Democrat,” Handel says. But he says three of his friends who backed Sanders in 2016 have flipped to Warren.

Sanders, he says, needs to do a few things differently.

“He needs to tone down his voice,” Handel says. And “he needs to differentiate between himself and Warren. He can say to the public, ‘She’s a good friend of mine, I have no ill will toward her, but we just have a different view of how we want to address the issues with the country.’”

There are only four months before the primaries begin, but in today’s news cycles, that’s an eternity. It’ll be fascinating to see where Sanders goes from here and whether he can make a genuine play for the nomination. I can say this much: I don’t think he’ll give up easily.

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