Bernie Sanders Is in Trouble
By Holly Otterbein 9/30/19
WEST LIBERTY, Iowa — Bernie Sanders was on the final leg of a barnstorming tour through Iowa last week that he hoped would persuade voters he’s the best candidate to take on President Donald Trump. He had crisscrossed the state at typical breakneck speed, visiting, in two days, five counties that had thrown their lot in with Trump after helping put Barack Obama in the White House. But a community center where Sanders was taking questions from voters, 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.”
With just four months until the first-in-the-nation caucuses, Sanders is in trouble. As he delivered his populist gospel to large crowds of camouflage-clad high schoolers, liberal arts college students, and trade union members across Iowa last week, a problematic narrative was hardening around him: His campaign is in disarray and Elizabeth Warren has eclipsed him as the progressive standard-bearer of the primary. He’s sunk to third place nationally, behind Warren and Joe Biden, and some polls of early nomination states show him barely clinging to double digits. He’s shaken up his staffs in Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s lost the endorsement of the Working Families Party, a left-wing group that backed him in 2016, to Warren.
Dismissed out of the gate in 2016 as a nonfactor against Hillary Clinton — only to single-handedly shift the Democratic Party’s ideological center of gravity — Sanders is quite familiar with being left for dead. His top brass' official line is that pundits and political elites are writing him off because they have no clue what’s happening at kitchen tables and picket lines across America. Sanders and his team have argued some polls that are bad for him are out of whack and several polls that are good for him are ignored by the media.
Meanwhile, his aides say, Sanders remains a fundraising and organizing juggernaut. In its classic big-big-big-numbers style, the campaign announced this month that it had both contacted 1 million voters in Iowa and received donations from 1 million people throughout the United States — a milestone he reached faster than any Democratic presidential candidate in history.
Sanders is still a top-tier candidate, and many voters haven’t made up their minds yet. But time is starting to run short. Sanders staffers cited a few reasons they used this critical post-Labor Day span of the primary for what they dubbed the Bernie Beats Trump tour, which they say had been in the works for a while: With the visual punch of big, enthusiastic crowds, they wanted to debunk the idea that Sanders can’t attract support in rural and conservative areas. They say Sanders is committed to doing retail politics in Iowa, albeit in his own way, where he takes questions and asks voters at intimate town halls to share their experiences of economic hardship. And they sought to show that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Sanders’ left-wing ideas aren’t too radical to survive a general election.
Sanders held court last week as ordinary Iowans poured their hearts out to him, saying they need "Medicare for All" and that he’s the one to beat Trump. “We want Bernie, and he is our only hope,” one man says, telling the crowd that his mother had been diagnosed with bone cancer and her health care costs were “obscenely expensive."
Though Sanders leads Trump in virtually every head-to-head national poll, the nebulous concept of "electability" has dogged him in a year in which many Democrats care more about defeating Trump than anything else. Surveys show Biden is winning the argument that he's the Democratic Party's surest bet in a general election, and Warren’s perceived electability among voters has risen faster than Sanders’.
But party operatives, and even some Sanders allies, aren’t convinced that the swing through Iowa was strategic. “Bernie has no idea how to right the ship and neither does anybody around him,” a Democratic activist with knowledge of the campaign says. “They don’t know where they’re going. They know things aren’t going well and they’re grasping at ideas.”
As Sanders has stagnated and Warren has soared, even some of the Vermont senator’s supporters are expressing alarm. Something is off, they say privately, adding to the chorus of people in establishment political circles saying the same thing. Maybe he should explain how he’s different from Warren — he has deliberately avoided any hint of criticism of her — or commit to out-organizing her in the early nominating states. Or perhaps he needs to make nice with the media and hire more seasoned pros. Or what about going all-in on Iowa?
The ideas from his volunteers, former aides, past delegates, steering committee members, and even some people within his campaign, vary. But they almost all come back to the same fundamental question, a question that has confounded the campaign since its earliest days: Can Bernie Sanders — a 78-year-old iconoclast whose entire identity is about standing firm in his beliefs, damn it — change?
How would he beat Trump?
Sanders is in a locker room in Decorah wearing a suit he bought at Kohl’s, surrounded by three of his aides. The county where Decorah is voted 60-38 for Obama in 2008 and 46.4-45.6 for Trump eight years later. He asks a staffer about his jam-packed schedule. “We’ll be good,” the aide assures Sanders. “We’ll be good.” Sanders sits on a bench and crouches over with his hands on his knees.
About an hour earlier, Sanders entered a gym at Luther College to shouts of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” He delivered his rip-roaring stump speech to about 500 people inside and 150 more streaming outdoors, in a city with a population of only 7,850. But there was a slight twist: He gave a brief preview of how he would campaign against Trump.
“Donald Trump is a fraud,” he thunders. He “ran a very smart campaign, I got to give him that.” Trump promised to stand with the working class in Iowa and give health care to everybody, he says. “Remember that?” In Sanders’ telling, Trump turned his back on those people by trying to kick millions off Obamacare and cut Medicare. In fact, Sanders says, he’s always been a phony: He "had no problem hiring undocumented immigrants to help him build the Trump hotel in Washington, D.C.” He hit Trump for making his products overseas, too: “What everybody here should know is that Donald Trump manufactures his tie line in China.” Trump’s clothing? “Mexico,” Sanders says. Furniture? “Turkey.” Picture frames? “India.” Shirts? “Bangladesh, where workers are paid just 30 cents an hour."
Sanders doesn’t contrast himself with Trump as much as some other Democratic candidates do. Beyond pointing to head-to-head polls showing him ahead of Trump in a hypothetical general election, he also doesn’t usually explain why he would be the best candidate to beat Trump, though he makes more of an effort to do so on this tour. Sanders’ supporters wish he’d do more of both.
“Bernie would be an exceptionally strong opponent to Trump because, just as was true in 2016, his authenticity propels the merits of his proposals, which garner huge public support,” says Jonathan Tasini, the author of The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America and a national surrogate for Sanders in 2016. “But I think he’s a seasoned politician who also understands he can’t simply make the electability argument based on poll matchups more than a year out from an election, which would come after a brutal multibillion [dollar] Republican attack campaign.”
In the locker room, I ask Sanders to make his electability case, sans polls.
“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.
Another thing that Sanders doesn’t often do is talk in depth about his working-class background. Joe Biden is known as “Middle-Class Joe,” however apocryphal his critics think that nickname is. And Warren has risen in the polls as she’s wrapped her speeches about big policies with stories of her childhood “on the ragged edge of the middle class.” If Sanders won the Democratic nomination, would he be willing to use his personal story to beat Trump?
“Of course I am,” he says. “Of course I am.” Then why hasn’t he used it more in the primary? “Well, you know, I’m not a conventional politician. And I think a lot of politicians use their own stories to deflect their policy issues, right? So my life is interesting only in the sense that I know what it’s like for my family, for a family, to live paycheck to paycheck. I know that. And that has shaped my political views.” Then he deploys a line that his allies wish he would use more often: “Trump got — correct me if I’m wrong here, what he got — $200,000 a year in allowance when he was a little kid. All right, I got 25 cents a week.”
Sanders has built a movement around the fact that he doesn’t change. When Democrats were voting for free-trade deals and the war in Iraq in the 1990s and 2000s and laughing off the idea of single-payer health care, he was alone in the wilderness holding on to his democratic socialist ideals. But at the beginning of his 2020 campaign, he vowed he would change some things.
After catching criticism for having an operation with too many white men at the top in 2016, Sanders hired a diverse staff for 2020. His aides also said he would tell his personal story this time, and his campaign kickoff events were centered on his working-class childhood and the civil rights activism of his college days.
But after those initial speeches, which managed to drive the media about him for a moment, it largely fell by the wayside. He may speak about his background more than in 2016, but it’s still far less than other candidates do. In an interview released this month, dying activist Ady Barkan told Sanders he was struck by an article in which Sanders said the death of his mother when he was a young adult helped convince him America needs guaranteed health care for all. But Sanders couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk about his mom: “Every day,” he replies, "we talk to people who have lost loved ones because they could not afford the medicine or health care that they needed.”
It’s just one example of what some political operatives see as Sanders making changes in fits and starts: His team decided to focus intently on Medicare for All a few months ago, they say, but then went on an electability tour last week. He orchestrated a softball game with reporters in Iowa in a sign he wanted to ease tensions with the media, only to continue holding up the “corporate media” as a bogeyman on the campaign trail. He made an effort to draw more institutional support than in 2016, even calling politicians to woo them, but got out-hustled by Warren for the Working Families Party’s endorsement.
“My go-to answer when anyone asks me what Bernie’s really like, and I get asked that question all the time, is he is exactly how he is onstage in real life," a former aide to Sanders says. "He’s kind of a cranky, cantankerous old man who is completely and just obsessively convinced of his convictions. There’s no political calculation, really, with the things he does and says. And that’s why he can speak with a clear mind and clear heart about his economic message better than almost anyone can. But it also comes with pitfalls.”
The specter of Warren
On the last day of his electability tour, Sanders does something he hasn’t done in months on the campaign trail: a long-form Q&A with reporters.
It’s not clear it’s happening at first. After a news conference about his plan to dramatically increase union membership in the country, he asks, “Any questions on the legislation?” Crickets. “All right, well, thank you all very much. Take care.” But then journalists start lobbing other questions, and for nearly 30 minutes, he talks about everything from impeachment to the wealth tax plan he just rolled out to new polls showing him down in some early nominating states.
The specter of Warren — who called for impeachment proceedings before most of her opponents and formally proposed a wealth tax months ago — hangs over the event. One way to see the electability tour is as a subtle attempt to argue that Sanders is the progressive who is best able to defeat Trump.
Sanders has called for impeachment hearings, but stopped short of saying he thinks Trump should be removed from office. In the back-and-forth with journalists, he gives his most direct remarks yet on the subject: He thinks Trump committed impeachable offenses but wants to wait to see evidence before making a final call.
“Here’s the dilemma that you have,” he says. “My gut is that the average Republican in the Senate and the House is totally intimidated by President Trump. And at this particular point, I have my doubts, like you all. I have my doubts that any Republican, or very few ... would vote against him.” He’s afraid of what would happen if an impeachment vote failed in the Senate: “I know, and you know, what he will do: ‘I am vindicated!' ... And I think that is a fact that has to be taken into consideration.”
As for a recent survey that found him slipping in New Hampshire, he says: “I would ask pollsters to kind of understand that young people do vote, and in my view, are going to vote in much larger numbers than they have before." He likewise expressed doubt about the gold-standard Des Moines Register poll that found him in third place in Iowa with 11 percent, saying, “Our data shows a very different situation."
Expectations for Sanders in Iowa are sky-high: He came within less than a half-point of winning the caucuses in 2016, and if he doesn’t defeat Warren in the state, many political insiders think he’s toast. The most remarkable part of the recent Iowa survey, perhaps, found that Warren was defeating Sanders among both young voters — the core of his base — as well as people who caucused for him in 2016.
Asked what his message is to former supporters who are now eyeing other candidates, as well as past Clinton voters, he says: “Let me be very honest with you. We’re trying to do what no candidate, certainly in the modern history of this country, has tried to do: We are taking on the entire establishment. That means we are taking on Wall Street. We’re taking on the insurance companies. We are taking on the drug companies. We are taking on the fossil fuel industry.” He adds, “We are taking on the Republican establishment, and we’re taking on the Democratic establishment.”
Sanders could note that he's on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s leadership team or that he worked his tail off campaigning for Clinton in the general election or that he rallied for legions of Democrats in the 2018 midterms. But he doesn’t. His answer is aimed not at the traditional Democrats who Warren has attracted along with progressives, but at the disaffected and anti-establishment voters — and nonvoters — who either aren’t tuning into the race yet, haven’t been called by pollsters, or have left him for other candidates.
Going into the primary, one of the biggest questions about Sanders was whether he could expand his base. He’s characteristically flipped that question on its head: His plan is to win the nomination — and general election — by expanding the electorate itself. His campaign believes there are droves of people out there who don’t vote, or rarely vote, that he can win over. His aides argue that it’s this capability that also makes him the best candidate to beat Trump.
“Our organizing strategy is actually around getting people back involved in the electoral process who really, frankly, have given up because they feel left out. They were either lied to by Trump or have been disappointed by Democrats in the past,” says Misty Rebik, Sanders’ Iowa state director.
Sanders’ campaign is a test of just how thoroughly disgusted the country is with the political establishment of both parties. It’s a tightrope of a strategy: He needs millions of disillusioned voters who aren’t too disillusioned to haul themselves to the polls. He also needs them to not fall for Warren, who has her own anti-establishment bona fides even if she has a less antagonistic relationship with party officials than Sanders. And he needs them in the primary, at a time when Nancy Pelosi’s favorability among Democratic voters has risen as she’s battled Trump.
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.’”
A day after Sanders’ Iowa tour, CNN reported on more dissension within his campaign — after a pair of POLITICO stories a week earlier on the same topic. This time it was over when to air TV ads in the early nominating states. Sanders has not gone on air yet, unlike every other top candidate except Warren, who announced a $10 million ad blitz last week.
But Sanders received a bit of a respite: Reporters were preoccupied with the newly announced impeachment proceedings against Trump. More polls showing Warren surging also seemed to be momentarily subsumed.
Andrew Feldman, a progressive consultant with close ties to labor unions, says Sanders has been given a gift: With the national media absorbed by the impeachment inquiry, he has an opportunity to reset and develop a clear plan to win Iowa.
“The question,” he says, “is will he and his team be able to professionalize their operation to really maximize on this moment?”
Sanders has shown he can change, but only a little, at times, in ways that feel true to him. The question is whether that’s enough to win — and perhaps more importantly, whether Americans want a president who won’t bend.
At the end of last week, Sanders went on "The Late Show," with his hair brushed down flat and wearing a suit that looked like it wasn’t bought at Kohl’s. Stephen Colbert asked Sanders what differentiates him from Warren. For once, he answered the question. His climate plan is the “most comprehensive” ever, he says, and his wealth tax is a “very strong tax” that will help pay for Medicare for All, universal child care and solutions to the affordable housing crisis. Both plans go beyond what Warren has called for.
He also hit Trump with a punch only a son of the working class could throw: “He grew up as a very rich kid. I think he was a spoiled brat. And he thinks he can do anything that he wants.”