Can Bernie Sanders Maintain Momentum?

Sep 9, 2015

While the Donald Trump surge in the Republican presidential sweepstakes has dominated media coverage among GOP hopefuls, the Democratic side has been suffused with reports about Hillary Clinton’s foundering campaign and her drop in public opinion poll favorability ratings.

Each new cycle seems to bring yet another attempt by her campaign to sail out of the doldrums, even if many of her problems seem self-inflicted. Just this week, aides told the New York Times that they have a plan to make her more spontaneous and less aloof.

Just how a campaign can use a studied plan to make a candidate fresh will be interesting, to say the least. So far Clinton has apologized for use of a private e-mail server during her tenure as secretary of state. Yet that seems a minor issue compared to the much more serious topic of why she allowed entities with business before her department to contribute to the Clinton Foundation and pay her husband’s bloated speech fees.

The Clinton camp can put her in less formal situations, such as having her stump among the regulars at diners and fairs. Yet making a candidate who has been around politics for decades suddenly authentic is somewhat akin to making Stevie Wonder a World Series umpire. There was the success of the New Nixon campaign in 1968, but that was a strange year with a three-way general election contest.

Clinton’s biggest immediate hurdle is the traction that Bernie Sanders, the insurgent, left-leaning Vermont senator, is generating among the liberal base of the Democratic Party, particularly in the kickoff caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

The latest polling from NBC News has Sanders leading Clinton in New Hampshire, 49 to 38 percent, and even catching up to Clinton in Iowa, the first caucus state. The latest Quinnipac University public opinion in Iowa shows Sanders and Clinton locked in a virtual tie, with Sanders at 41 percent and Clinton at 40. The Vermonter has drawn huge crowds of enthusiastic liberals at venues around the nation.

Using the Internet as a fund-raising juggernaut, Sanders has raised enough money to mount a serious early campaign, says Tad Devine, Sanders top consultant and a veteran of many Democratic presidential efforts. On August 1, Devine says, Sanders had just one paid staffer in New Hampshire. Now there are 37. And he has more than 50 on the ground in Iowa, a state where person-to-person turnout is the Holy Grail of caucus politics.

The Sanders surge hasn’t come because Clinton has become complacent, à la her 2008 run, which she and her inner circle treated more as coronation than campaign. She has spent more than $2 million on television commercials in Iowa and New Hampshire, with nothing really to show for the expenditures. The ads have her talking on camera when they should be using more third-party validation spots, such as portraying just folks boasting about her candidacy.

What Sanders has done is vault his campaign to become the not-Clinton, blowing away other announced aspirants, including Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee. After a spate of silly stories in the national media, including the New York Times and Washington Post, campaign reporters seem to be judging Sanders on more conventional measures, rather than his roots in Vermont’s left-wing fringe Liberty Union Party, which he left in the 1970s, before his 1981 10-vote upset win as mayor of Burlington, the quintessential college town that is his rural state’s largest city.

For weeks, the national press seemed obsessed with old Liberty Union and marginal Vermont activists, including perennial candidate Peter Diamondstone and Greg Guma, people who have never had much  impact on Vermont’s political culture and a pretty much ancient news. Diamondstone ran for governor last year and received less than one percent of the vote. Once colorful, he is now 80 years old, and his health is lagging. Guma has never been elected to anything meaningful in decades on the margins.

Sanders record as mayor rarely got much scrutiny, which is too bad because he had quite a run. After ousting a Democratic machine that was an uneasy amalgam of Irish-American and French-Canadian Roman Catholics, Sanders ran into a wall of opposition when he took office. One city councilor, Joyce Desautels, famously called him and his supporters a "socialist fungus" that had to be eliminated.

The city council tried to block Sanders from making appointments to city jobs and commissions, which only served to both thicken his skin and make him an underdog among voters in a city of changing demographics, where party ties loosened and the young and hip moved into neighborhoods that once held older working class ethnic factory workers.

I covered Sanders as a young City Hall reporter for the Burlington Free Press, Vermont’s largest newspaper. He was at times irascible, but he was quite accessible and candid. I never had the feeling that he "hated" the press, a new trope of the national media. If he was a bit paranoid at times, well, he had a right to be because the city establishment was out to get him. He often reminded me of another brainy Jewish pol, Barney Frank, who boasted both a stiletto wit and a withering temper.

As mayor, Sanders left the city in better shape than when he took over. He made serious investments in infrastructure and the environment and never had a close election after his first narrow victory.

Sanders views himself as a serious tribune of working-class America, the last unabashed New Dealer in the Democratic Party. His candor is in sharp contrast to the trimming of the constantly bobbing and weaving Clintons. You may not like what Sanders believes, but I always had the feeling that you knew where he stood on any serious issue.

What I always thought he never liked about the media is the faux coverage perpetuated by what Joan Didion famously called the 'permanent political class:' the pollsters, reporters and talk show mavens. This had bred what Louis Menard aptly termed in a recent New Yorker as a "game" where "everyone knows that what you see in politics is fake or confected, but everyone’s O.K. with that because it’s all been focus-grouped."

Sanders has long given me the impression that he views campaign coverage as solipsistic and silly because reporters rarely examine the underlying class and economic fissures of American life. Too much coverage is focused on narratives and personal stories and not enough on issues. This leads some voters to conclude that the economic and social system is "never the cause of anything,"  in Menard’s words.

What has evolved is 'This Town' political coverage on steroids, where the pols and the media have a winking view of politics as permanent Beltway in-joke, with reporters  and spinners  sharing drinks at tony capital taverns while average voters fret over economic inequality and worry about how they are going to pay Johnny’s and Mary’s soaring tuition bills.

Time will tell if Sanders can tap deeper into the  economic malaise that the base of his party feels. He has already changed the dialogue on the Democratic side. He launches an initiative – free public college tuition – and Clinton follows with her own proposal that has inevitably been poll-tested and focus-grouped.

Devine, his strategist, acknowledges that Sanders has to expand the electorate, particularly among the young and low-income, if he is to have a serious shot at the nomination. Sanders has challenges with women and African-American voters, strong pieces of the Democratic foundation. He has never run a negative campaign in his long career in politics. Yet because his favorable-to-negative polling ratios are better than Clinton’s, it is she who will likely have to launch attacks on him.

Because Clinton has high negatives, she wouldn’t be the best messenger of a credible attack campaign on the Vermont senator. Perhaps husband Bill Clinton, who is likely to become more involved in the campaign, will emerge as the mudslinger-in-chief. He played this role poorly in 2008, when he compared then-Senator Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson during the South Carolina primary, the earliest southern test.

In that case, Sanders would do well to shrug off the attacks and stick to hammering Clinton on issues. So far, even one prominent Hillary Clinton supporter is impressed.

"You know exactly what he feels on everything," said noted investor Warren Buffet. "He’s articulate and he doesn’t go around knocking the other candidates."