Barely 24 hours after veteran Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders announced last week he would run again for president in 2020, campaign officials announced he managed to raise nearly $6 million. In less than a week, the total reached $10 million.
This was nearly 20 times what Senator Elizabeth Warren achieved on her first day after a similar announcement, and nearly four times more than Senator Kamala Harris’s $1.5 million.
Despite his age, at 77, and amid a crowded field of progressive/Democratic candidates, the donations clearly established Sanders as a frontrunner in the bid to prevent Republican US President Donald Trump from winning a second term.
When Sanders competed against Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2016, many pundits excluded him, claiming he was too radical for the US political establishment. However, Sanders defied all odds and posed the most serious challenge to Clinton.
While many of his supporters continued to stick with him, some are waiting to see how the Democratic field challenging Trump shapes up. Sanders enters the race with clear strengths: broad name recognition, an ability to raise money and passionate supporters who flocked to his insurgent 2016 campaign against Clinton.
Sanders, an independent democratic socialist who aligns with Democrats in the Senate, pushed Clinton and the party to the left in 2016 and drew fervent support from young and liberal voters with an agenda supporting universal healthcare, raising the hourly minimum wage and free college tuition.
These are mainstream positions for the party now, with Democratic presidential contenders, including Warren, Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker, promoting similar views.
But Sanders will face lingering resentment in some Democratic quarters over the 2016 campaign. His challenge to Clinton split the party and generated tension between its establishment and liberal wings.
Sanders has already moved to correct some 2016 missteps. In January, he apologised to women campaign workers who said they had been harassed or mistreated by male campaign staffers, and he acknowledged the campaign’s “standards and safeguards were inadequate”.
He has been trying to reach out to black and Hispanic leaders after having trouble winning over minority voters in 2016. That could prove challenging again as a white man competing against female, black and Hispanic candidates.
Ray Buckley, chairman of the Democratic Party in New Hampshire, an influential state with an early nominating contest where Sanders won 60 per cent of the vote in 2016, said Sanders’ inner circle of top supporters there is largely with him. But most prominent party activists are shopping the field, Buckley said.
Some Sanders allies expect the crowded field to help him, fracturing the vote enough to give Sanders and his dedicated following more clout.
“It’s going to be real hard for some of the other candidates to stand out, whereas Senator Sanders already has the name recognition and support,” said Tim Smith, a state legislator in New Hampshire and a member of the state’s steering committee for Sanders.
Sanders also will benefit from grassroots groups such as Organising for Bernie, Draft Bernie and People for Bernie Sanders, which have been building support and organising for him ahead of his announcement.
His supporters said his decades-long commitment to progressive issues will resonate with voters choosing among candidates with similar views.
“These aren’t platitudes to him,” said Katherine Brezler, co-founder of People for Bernie Sanders. However, for Abramson, a 2016 Sanders delegate, “we need somebody who can tap a broader segment of the electorate.”
In all events, Sanders’ entry into the 2020 presidential race has complicated fellow liberal Warren’s bid for the Democratic nomination, a path that runs straight through New Hampshire.
Sanders, a US senator from neighbouring Vermont, retains a strong following in the state where he trounced Clinton by more than 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential contest.
An Emerson College opinion poll of New Hampshire voters released Saturday showed Sanders to be the top choice of respondents with 27 per cent of the vote. Warren, a senator from neighbouring Massachusetts, was far behind at nine per cent — a worrisome number given many New Hampshire voters are familiar with her.
But over the weekend there were signs Warren could be chipping away at Sanders’ support a year before the New Hampshire primary. Some New Hampshire residents who voted for Sanders last time said they were now leaning towards Warren. For some Sanders’ political window has closed. For others, they want a female nominee.
“Bernie lost his shine,” said Candace Moulton, 36, who attended Warren’s campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire. “I think we’re really ready to have a woman president, to be frank.”
New Hampshire often has been where presidential aspirations are solidified. While the Iowa caucuses serve as the first test of a candidate’s strength, New Hampshire holds the first party primary, and has been a state where a contender can build momentum, salvage a campaign or reach the end of the road.
Ten Democrats have already declared their candidacy for the party’s nomination, and more are expected to join. New Hampshire’s primary traditionally has favoured candidates with ties to the region, making it important for Sanders and Warren.
Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said he expects the presidential field to narrow significantly by the time the primary comes. “There’s a good likelihood that New Hampshire will be framed as a Sanders-Warren competition with one ticket out,” he said.
Should Warren fail to win Iowa, New Hampshire becomes a “must-win”, Scala said. “It’s hard to see her lasting if she can’t win here.”
Former vice president Joe Biden could muddy things further if he mounts a bid. Biden placed second in the Emerson poll, and his high name recognition with voters could give him a boost.
Liz Alcauskas, 74, of Manchester, said many of Sanders’ ideas were important, but she planned to vote for a different Democrat in next year’s election. “I would like to not have an old white man be president,” she said. “It’s someone else’s turn now.”
Even some of Sanders’ most loyal supporters are unsure of him. Andru Volinsky, a member of Sanders’ 2016 steering committee in the state, said “my first inclination is towards Bernie, but I haven’t ruled out a handful of others.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Senator Bernie Sanders back in the race