Bernie Sanders isn't going away: What his surprising poll numbers really mean

The Vermont senator is riding a wave of popularity, but key challenges await after Iowa and New Hampshire

Published July 12, 2015 11:00AM (EDT)

  (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

How long will the Bernie bubble last?

Right now, Bernie Sanders is drawing bigger crowds than any other presidential candidate. His economic populism is bringing in millions in contributions that will carry him into next year’s opening caucuses and primaries. In short, Bernie has been campaigning in a way that has served him well for years—as a blunt retail politician whose calls for economic fairness and a people-centered uprising have endeared him to working people across the political spectrum.

There are many surprising facets to Sanders’ appeal that are not widely known outside of Vermont that account for his campaign’s better-than-expected opening and likely staying power. But while some longtime Vermont Sanders watchers are not surprised by his success—they know his emphatic, intense, almost-explosive demeanor and his reputation as a resilient campaigner, they’re also acutely aware of the challenges he faces as the race transitions from its heady start-up phase to a very competitive contest.

“I think Bernie can do well,” said Eric Davis, Middlebury College political science professor specializing in Vermont politics. “I told someone, half-jokingly, if the presidential election were held in Vermont, Massachusetts, northern California and New York City, Bernie could win. But there are 46 other states that vote too… That’s Bernie’s challenge.”

“Part of Bernie’s appeal is his unvarnished language and his willingness to just come across as a straight shooter taking on the big guys,” said David Moats, the Rutland Herald’s editorial writer, who won a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for backing civil unions for same-sex couples. “If pickup-driving guys in the South heard that language recalibrated a bit, they might respond… It is anti-big guy rhetoric that rural people can respond to.”

Sanders has created a career of championing people and causes that confound political boundaries. In 1972, he started running for state office as a candidate for the fringe Liberty Union Party. He railed against big business much like he does today, but never got more than a small protest vote. That changed in 1981 when he became mayor of Burlington, the state’s largest city and home to many colleges and universities, winning by a mere 10 votes.

During his four terms as mayor, he became the politician that he is today—taking on entrenched interests and helping to elect others to the city council to support his reforms. He ran for governor and the House as mayor, but lost. He was elected to the House in 1990, in the same election that a conservative Republican became governor in a fiscal crisis. That voters wanted a businessman at home while sending a socialist populist to Congress is consistent with Vermont’s self-reliant, anti-establishment political character.

Sanders has drawn on these twin themes for years to craft a populist message that is attractive across party lines. Today, he hits these notes when calling for expanding Social Security—emphasizing that this is what decent people need to live independently, while slamming GOP opponents who don’t want wealthy people paying more fairly into the system.

During his successful House run in 1990, Sanders won the support of Vermont’s rural Republicans, whose family roots can go back centuries. One reason was he opposed gun control, which Vermont Democrats still do. Another is Vermonters knew where he was coming from. But mostly, like today, he was an economic populist who understood and championed the plight of cash-poor people.

“One of the reasons he won that 1990 race was among lower-income rural Vermonters… Bernie was seen as speaking more effectively to the concerns of rural people that the traditional Vermont Republican [incumbent Rep. Peter] Smith,” Davis said.

The rural Republicans who looked at a candidate before their political party have mostly “passed out of the electorate,” Davis said, saying that era is over. What has not changed in Vermont, however, but worsened like the rest of the country, are its economic divides. As Sanders has long noted, “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.”

“In past ten to 15 years in Vermont, there’s been a real disconnect between the more prosperous parts of the state and the more struggling parts,” Davis said. “A lot of low-income people see Bernie as speaking to issues that concern them and standing up for their interest in ways that others have not.”

“Also, he’s always made a point of championing the interests of veterans,” Moats said, identifying another slice of his base and oratory. “That always has a kind of working class appeal, because a lot of people in the armed services are working-class people… He’s also protected himself by not being anti-gun, which most Vermont politicians do.”

Sanders’ electoral success in Vermont also has been because he has not held true levers of power affecting people’s lives, apart from being Burlington mayor in the 1980s. Indeed, many Vermont voters were happy to sent him to Congress—instead of the state capital—where his outspokenness is seen as more appropriate.

“That’s true,” Moats said. “In Washington, he can go down there and raise hell and that’s fine. As governor in Montpelier, I’m not sure they' would have taken so well to that.”

Bernie Then and Now 

The factors that have made Bernie attractive to Vermonters—only one-third of the state is urban or suburban—will translate in Iowa, where presidential caucus goers typically vote for people who are outside the party mainstream, and New Hampshire, where mavericks have done well.

“Bernie will do better than expected in the Democratic Caucus in Iowa,” Davis said. “And Bernie will do better in New Hampshire, because that state has a history of sometimes voting for mavericks and because he’s from right next door. Both Iowa and New Hampshire put a premium on retail politics, which is what Bernie has been doing for 30 years—speaking at town meetings and stuff like that.”

But that’s likely to be as far as the Bernie bubble will go, Davis said, because the factors that will propel him in these early contests will not be enough to help him to clear other hurdles that will arise as the nominating contest moves on to other states.

“To talk about Bernie Sanders the presidential candidate in 2016, you have to talk about—not so much Vermont because he’s running nationally—you have to look at the dynamics of American politics today and where Bernie is going to get his votes,” Davis said. “My sense, from watching his rallies on TV and talking to supporters who have been at these events, is most of the people who are showing up at Bernie’s events—it may be a little different in Iowa—but certainly the people showing up where he’s gotten big crowds, in Denver, Madison, New Hampshire, it’s mostly middle-aged white professionals, overwhelmingly white audiences, who are on the progressive side of the Democratic party. And that’s not enough to win the presidency by any means.”

The first big hurdle—barring any problems within his campaign, such as the excessive spending that preceded former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s implosion in 2004—will be appealing to Black and Latino voters in the next states that follow, Davis said.

“My view is that the campaign gets a lot more difficult for Bernie when it gets past Iowa and New Hampshire, because you get into South Carolina and Nevada where the electorate is a lot more diverse,” he said. “So far, I have not seen any evidence that Bernie Sanders can do well among Latino voters or African-American voters. And then we get into March and we are talking about multiple primaries every Tuesday in big states that put a premium on media campaigning rather than retail campaigning.”

“I think there is probably something to that,” Moats said, echoing Davis’ point on Sanders’ cross-racial appeal. “Think of 1968. [Democrat] Eugene McCarthy was very popular on the college campuses and Bobby Kennedy had lots of support in the Black and Latino communities—and Bobby Kennedy came on strong once he got into it [the presidential race]. Hillary Clinton has lots of support in the Black and Latino communities, and so that is a problem for Bernie. He’s the favorite of college campuses and old aging hippies… You should have seen his rally in Burlington when he announced.”

Sanders, unlike Clinton, is from a state that is almost all white. The 2010 Census found less than 5 percent of the population was non-white, giving Sanders few chances to work with those communities although he has a very strong pro-civil rights record in Congress. In contrast, Bill and Hillary Clinton have a history of working with African-Americans, even though Bill Clinton signed punitive crime and welfare bills that absolutely hurt communities of color.

What Sanders will do to bridge this gap remains to be seen. However, it’s likely he will have resources to try. Davis predicted that Bernie would raise the tens of millions he has said he needs to run vigorous campaigns in the early states. However, it’s not those states but the big ones that follow where Iowa and New Hampshire winners end up running out of cash to remain visible and respond to attacks.

“He says he needs $40 to $50 million for the four early states,” Davis said. “He will probably raise more than that. His average contribution that came out last week was $33. He has lots of donors. He can go back and ask them to give him again—another $25, $50, $100—maybe more than once and he’ll get new contributors. But once you get into states like Michigan and Florida, where the media budget is huge, Hillary Clinton, with the resources she’ll have—in my view, and a lot can change—Hillary Clinton will overwhelm Bernie Sanders once you get to March. I predict he ends his campaign some time in early April.”

There are other variables that will make the Bernie bubble hard to sustain. Other Democrats running could soon start attacking him, Moats said, saying they might want to be seen as the runner-up or “number two” to Clinton.

Sanders also might face some unexpected competition in South Carolina, even if he opens up several offices there. Beyond the Clintons’ ties to the state’s African-American leaders, the entrance into the race by ex-Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who recently defended the Confederate flag, could dilute Sanders’ appeal to its rural voters. In other big states that follow, such as Florida, it’s an open question if Sanders’ support of various revolutionary leaders over the years—Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Fidel Castro in Cuba, his honeymoon in the Soviet Union—would hurt him in a Democratic primary in the sunshine state.

“He is in the bubble phase,” said Moats, assessing the current campaign.

“My sense is he’s doing fine right now and will through the fall,” said Davis. “He’ll raise the money he needs for the early primary. He’ll do better than expected in Iowa and New Hampshire, and then it becomes more challenging.”

By Steven Rosenfeld

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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