Democrats gear up for 2020 — and Bernie Sanders still leads the pack

Bernie and other top Democrats are lining up, while Trump is fighting the culture war and dancing with Kim Jong Un

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 31, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Joe Biden; Bernie Sanders; Kamala Harris (AP/Getty)
Joe Biden; Bernie Sanders; Kamala Harris (AP/Getty)

If Bernie Sanders' former campaign manager is to be believed, the Vermont Senator is seriously contemplating another presidential run in 2020.

When asked on the C-SPAN program "Washington Journal" on Tuesday about whether voters would have another chance to cast their ballots for Sanders, Weaver deflected the question but definitely didn't say no.

"Voters in Vermont certainly will, coming up in November," Weaver said. (Sanders is up for re-election to the Senate this year and is likely to face little or no serious opposition.) "Nationally, you know, he is considering another run for the presidency. When the time comes, I think we’ll have an answer to that, but right now, he’s still considering it."

The former campaign manager later told USA Today that what motivates him "is the desire to have a new president in the White House -- and a heavy consideration is, who is the best person to beat Trump in 2020.'"

He added, "Bernie is the person best positioned to defeat Trump in 2020. That's my personal view. He brings a lot of new voters into the process. He is also incredibly strong with independent voters."

Weaver's sense about Sanders' chances is certainly backed up by recent surveys on the 2020 election. A CNN poll from March found that 76 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents were very likely or somewhat likely to support Sanders if he ran in 2020, putting him close to the lead among Democratic prospects. He was surpassed only by former Vice President Joe Biden (84 percent) and followed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (68 percent), Sen. Kamala Harris of California (53 percent), Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey (50 percent) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (47 percent).

Similarly, a CNN poll from January found that Sanders would defeat Trump by 55 percent to 42 percent in the popular vote. That was a smidgen behind Biden, who defeated Trump in a hypothetical match-up by 57 percent to 40 percent, but better than the entirely imaginary candidacy of Oprah Winfrey, who led Trump in the survey by 51 percent to 42 percent. (Winfrey has subsequently made clear that she's not running.)

One obvious concern about a possible Sanders candidacy is that he will be 79 years old in 2020. If elected, he would become the oldest president in history and the first person to serve as president past age 80. (Donald Trump became the oldest newly-elected president when he was sworn in last year at age 70. Ronald Reagan completed his second term in 1989 at age 77.) When speaking with Salon about this possibility earlier this month, however, Weaver said he is confident that Sanders is healthy enough to serve, even stating that he would provide medical documentation if necessary.

Anybody who follows Bernie Sanders for one day and sees his schedule, and how rigorous it is, and how he drives everybody around him, works them into the ground with the amount of work and energy he has, I think they would understand that his chronological age is just not really a measure of his true age. . . .

A lot of reporters [covering the 2016 campaign] had a story in the can about how Bernie couldn’t keep up and wasn’t able to carry out a regular schedule. Within a week, those stories were thrown in the trash can because he was putting those reporters, many of whom were much younger than he was -- in fact all of them were — he was wearing them out with the intensity of his campaign schedule.

In fact, I remember early on, one of the reporters asked me, “When do we stop for lunch? I don’t see it on the schedule.” I said, “Bernie doesn’t stop for lunch. He works at lunch. If you want lunch, you better bring it with you.” . . . Bernie Sanders is an extremely energetic and vigorous person, and has more energy, I would say, than people half his age.

There are other factors besides Sanders' age to be considered if he decides to run in 2020. Although Warren, a potential rival who could have split the progressive vote, has apparently taken herself out of consideration for 2020, Biden has not yet decided whether or not he wants to run. Widely perceived as a moderate who would appeal to Democrats of all stripes and perhaps lure white Rust Belt voters away from Trump, Barack Obama's former veep will be the immediate frontrunner if he jumps into the race. (Biden is barely younger than Sanders: He will turn 78 shortly after the 2020 election.)

Then there's the gender question. As the wave of successes experienced by female Democrats in the 2018 midterm election cycle demonstrates, this is an extraordinary period for women in politics. In the wake of Hillary Clinton's agonizing defeat, many Democratic voters will be eager for a female candidate, which could make both Harris and Gillibrand major contenders. Both have worked to shed their more moderate images and have moved toward the party's progressive wing on a whole range of issues.

We're still more than a year away from the first serious jockeying for position of the 2020 race, and at this early stage name recognition is the most important factor. It's no coincidence that Sanders and Biden look far stronger than Gillibrand, for instance, in early surveys. Only 2 percent of voters said they had never heard of Sanders and only 6 percent had never heard of Biden, according to recent poll results. By contrast, 55 percent of voters had never heard of Gillibrand in the most recent survey that included her — a fact that can change rapidly if she becomes a 2020 candidate.

Finally, it is hardly unknown for a dark horse candidate to emerge in the final months before the primaries kick off, who winds up taking the field by surprise. There hasn't been a total shocker in American politics since perhaps Jimmy Carter's unexpected run for the Democratic nomination in 1976, but it's fair to say that relatively few voters had heard of Barack Obama in 2005 -- and for that matter, most Democratic Party insiders initially viewed Sanders' 2016 campaign as a harmless act of resistance. Indeed, the fact that the 2020 field appears so unsettled suggests that the situation is ripe for precisely such an unknown quantity.

That said, Sanders has one factor working for him that none of his prospective alternatives can claim. He has managed to marshal a loyal army of progressive activists who stand for principles of social and economic justice that had seemingly been abandoned by the Democratic Party since the Bill Clinton years. Many of Sanders' followers will support no one else -- unless and until he tells them too. That alone will make Sanders a formidable opponent for any and all Democrats who are considering taking him on.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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