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Are Democrats Ready To 'Feel The Bern' Or Is Sanders The 'MySpace' Of 2020?

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in June 2016 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif. He launched a second presidential campaign on Tuesday, with a big burst of donations from supporters, but new challenges ahead.
Sandy Huffaker
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in June 2016 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif. He launched a second presidential campaign on Tuesday, with a big burst of donations from supporters, but new challenges ahead.

Bernie Sanders has again proved he should not be underestimated in a presidential contest.

Despite talk of his coalition potentially fracturing with such a big Democratic primary field, the Sanders faithful showed they've still got his back. In the 24 hours following the Vermont independent's announcement Tuesday that he was again running for president, he raised a whopping $6 million.

He took in $600,000 from people who signed up to make recurring monthly paymentsto his campaign. That will give him a guaranteed source of revenue that could help him last for a very long time in a protracted primary fight. It's a model that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who like Sanders identifies as a democratic socialist, also touted.

"It's like Netflix," she tweeted, "but for unbought members of Congress."

Others see Sanders and his 2020 run as less Netflix and more something else.

"Bernie Sanders is the MySpace or the Friendster of the Democratic left," said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist, who worked as an adviser to the Democratic National Committee during Barack Obama's presidential run in 2008. Sanders, Simmons noted, is like the startup that had the great idea, but doesn't become the one to fully capitalize on it.

Whichever you agree with, Sanders is undoubtedly going to have a major impact on the 2020 race, a far more crowded affair than 2016.

He has several advantages in this campaign for the Democratic nomination:

  • A proven ability to raise lots of money
  • Support with a strong activist base
  • A clear sense of what he's running for
  • But Sanders also has several disadvantages:

  • In 2016, he had the advantage of a challenger. Now, Sanders will face front-runner scrutiny. Zac Petkanas, the former director of rapid response for Hillary Clinton wrote Wednesday: "[I]n truth, the 2016 Clinton campaign never named him in a single negative television or digital ad. And the media never truly educated the primary voting public with the intensity reserved for candidates seen as viable."
  • He has to contend with the Democratic instinct to want someone new. Before Hillary Clinton in 2016, the party hadn't given the nomination to someone in a contested primary who was either a previous nominee or runner-up since Adlai Stevenson in 1956. (Stevenson went on to lose Dwight Eisenhower – and by a wider margin than the first time). Republicans, on the other hand, have often nominated the runner-up from a previous primary.
  • That also leads to Sanders' age. Many in the restive, younger activist base would rather not vote for someone turning 78 later this year before voting even takes place in the early states. (That will be a problem former Vice President Joe Biden would have to contend with, too, if he decides to jump in. Biden turns 77 in November.)
  • Sanders is not a Democrat. Though he caucuses with Democrats and ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders has declined to officially become one, which has rankled some in the base who are proud to wear the label. (The DNC, in fact, will meet with the campaigns at a briefing and present them with an "affirmation form" that states that candidates will run and serve as Democrats. "Candidates who have officially announced their candidacy will have a week to return a signed copy of the affirmation form to the DNC," according to a party official. The requirement is part of the party's rules this cycle.)
  • He's less popular with non-whites, who are so key in Democratic primaries. In 2016, Sanders only won 21 percent of the black vote compared to 49 percent of the white vote, including 54 percent of whites without a college degree. (Sanders did do better with younger nonwhite voters.)
  • He'll need to explain his "socialist" label. Trump is using "socialism" as a cudgel against Democrats, and Sanders' explanation of what it means to him is going to be especially key since Democrats are saying their top issue in 2020 is nominating someone who can beat Trump.
  • People close to Sanders acknowledge his challenges and the differences with 2016. On the socialism label, for example, Larry Cohen, chairman of Our Revolution, an outside group which grew out of Sanders' 2016 campaign, stressed that Sanders is about "innovation and supporting entrepreneurs."

    Cohen noted, for example, Sanders' support for the Vermont ice cream brand Ben and Jerry's, whose founder Ben Cohen (no relation to Larry) was named one of Sanders' campaign co-chairmen.

    "Organizing other businesses with social consciousness, that's been a big part of his life," Larry Cohen said.

    Sanders has also changed the business of how the Democratic Party goes about choosing its candidates. The role of superdelegates, for example, has been scaled back because of Sanders and his objection that they skewed too heavily in favor of Clinton in 2016. The DNC will also allow candidates who meet a grassroots fundraising threshold to participate in debates, regardless of how they're doing in the polls.

    And he is a main reason the Democratic candidates this year are advocating for progressive positions like Medicare-for-all and a $15 minimum wage. Ironically, Sanders' success in transforming the party may be part of what does him in, because there are now more options for the progressive left to choose from than in 2016.

    "Does it have to be him?" Arnie Arnesen, a New Hampshire radio show host and Sanders supporter in 2016, told NPR's Asma Khalid last month. "I don't think it does, and I admire him. I admire him to pieces."

    Robert Camacho, center, cheers as California Sen. Kamala Harris launches her presidential campaign in Oakland, Calif., in January.
    Noah Berger / AFP/Getty Images
    AFP/Getty Images
    Robert Camacho, center, cheers as California Sen. Kamala Harris launches her presidential campaign in Oakland, Calif., in January.

    Sanders was known for having a cult-like following and huge crowds in 2016. But many of the Democratic candidates this year are also drawing packed crowds early in this campaign. Sen. Kamala Harris, for example, drew 20,000 people for her kickoff rally in Oakland, Calif.

    The big crowds are a likely sign of overall Democratic enthusiasm, with the base itching to take on Trump and try to stop him from reelection. Sanders has to fight the idea that the enthusiasm behind him can be replicated by others.

    He's also having to fight for the head and heart of his candidacy.

    Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for example, could potentially peel off from the intellectual, ideological part of Sanders' coalition (the head).

    And if former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke gets in, he threatens to pull from the emotional, grassroots piece of his base that wants to root for someone (the heart).

    Cohen said Sanders welcomes Warren as an "ally," who is helping to rebuild the progressive base, and his team believes it can draw distinctions with O'Rourke to paint him as not as progressive, especially on trade. O'Rourke was one of just 28 House Democratsto support giving President Obama fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

    Whether he can hold onto it all — and expand to win a majority of delegates is an open question and major challenge.

    "That's why we have 18 months until the convention to test that out," Cohen said. "For people like me, it's about what kind of political world we build, not just the White House. It's about governing; it's the nature of the support base that will remain active, that you have an activist base, not just a candidate addiction."

    As far as competing with those other candidates, Cohen noted, "The facts are quite clear — $6 million, 300,000 individual donors. Add up all the others, you don't get to that number."

    Sanders' path to victory — or defeat

    Sanders is one of the big fishes people were eagerly watching as he deliberated whether to run. And his entry is already giving some shape to how the contest could play out.

    The early states, for example, are likely going to take on even more significance now in winnowing the field. It's easy, for example, to see Sanders' winning path — and how he loses. Sanders nearly won Iowa, a caucus state, in 2016, and he won the New Hampshire primary handily, by 20 points.

    And those two early states take on extra significance for Sanders, who is not expected to be a major player in South Carolina, a state where 61 percentof Democratic voters in the 2016 primary were black. Hillary Clinton beat him there by almost 50 points.

    This year it's likely to be a battle between the two leading African-American candidates, Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and possibly Biden, if he decides to run.

    If Sanders sweeps Iowa and New Hamsphire this time, he might be hard to stop. If he loses one (especially New Hamsphire) or both, Sanders might have the money to continue, but winning a majority of delegates before the convention would be much more difficult.

    What's more, it's easy to see how New Hampshire will be the filter in a potential fight between Sanders and Warren, who are both from neighboring states. It will also mean higher stakes in Iowa for candidates like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is from bordering Minnesota, and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, another Midwesterner, to defeat Sanders.

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    Domenico Montanaro
    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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