Those avid followers of American politics will be well aware of Bernie Sanders by now.
The former mayor of Burlington and current independent senator for Vermont burst into the national and international spotlight in 2015 when he announced his candidacy for president of the United States, the highest and most powerful political office in the world. Armed with a group of close-knit advisers and loyal progressive supporters but virtually unknown to the wider public, he raised his national profile and ran a fierce campaign for the Democratic nomination, raising issues like universal healthcare for the first time in years, shifting the Overton window of the Democratic Party firmly to the left. He fell short in 2016, losing the nomination to Hillary Clinton, and there were doubts that he would not run again for the nomination in 2020, with factors including his age being brought up — he would be 79 if he managed to win the general election next time around.
But Mr Sanders’ recent rise in the polls has been remarkable. Despite the fact social critic and political thinker Noam Chomsky recently said that the ‘chances of Sanders winning the nomination are not great’, and that, if he does it will be a ‘miracle’, in recent weeks Sanders has been polling remarkably well, taking the lead in Iowa polls and leading solidly in New Hampshire, the second state to cast its ballot. Although it is no surprise that Mr Sanders is popular amongst his core base, his recent surge in wider support is surprising for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Sanders recently returned from hospital following a heart attack, and there were fears among his closest advisers that this would be the end for his campaign, as the election campaign is a long and arduous process, requiring long hours on the road and the candidate to be in good health for the ever-present television cameras. Although Reagan was re-elected to the presidency at the age of 73 and his closest rival for the nomination Joe Biden is only a year his junior, age is often an important factor in elections, with voters often preferring a candidate that is youthful and exuberant, like an Obama or Kennedy, or even a Blair in the United Kingdom.
Political scientists and commentators jumped on the idea that Sanders’ health scare would greatly affect his chances at the nomination, with Jennifer Lawless, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, stating that she ‘thinks it would be difficult to encourage more people to begin supporting him’. But the current polling and surge in support for Sanders indicates voters are not buying this argument, perhaps valuing his intellectual integrity and ideas over his ageing exterior.
Secondly, the fact that a fellow progressive in Elizabeth Warren is running for the Democratic nomination this time around, highlights how impressive it is that Sanders has kept supporters onside and recently has actually grown in popularity, receiving endorsements from celebrity superstars such as Danny DeVito, Mark Ruffalo and Ariana Grande among others. Warren, a supporter of ‘Medicare For All’ and the ‘Green New Deal’ like Sanders, risks splitting the left vote and paving the way for a moderate like Biden or Buttigieg to come down the ideological centre and walk his way to the nomination. The fact that this hasn’t happened as of yet suggests that Bernie Sanders is doing a good job at holding onto the support of those on the left of the party, and the fact he is leading polls in Iowa and New Hampshire implies he is popular amongst the wider Democratic membership too. Furthermore, a recent study into MSNBC’s coverage of the top Democratic candidates by In These Times found that ‘of the three candidates, Sanders was least likely to be mentioned positively’, whilst ‘Warren had the lowest proportion of negative coverage of all three candidates and the highest percentage of positive mentions’, highlighting how impressive it is that Sanders has surged in poll ratings despite the ‘Bernie blackout’.
I think that voters are looking for a leader that has been consistent in his/her views, and Mr Sanders has been doing this throughout his career. For example, he was on the right side of history when he was arrested when protesting segregation in the 1960s and championed gay rights when he voted against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, the only presidential candidate to do so. As well as this, Mr Sanders chooses not to take corporate PAC money, supporting the view that this is an uncorrupted figure who does not have ties to the Washington establishment, and this idea is popular with voters. The electorate thought they were voting for a real outsider when they rejected Clinton for Trump in 2016 with his promise to ‘drain the swamp’, but once elected he appointed the former Goldman Sachs COO Gary Cohn as his National Economic Council director. People hope the outsider Bernie Sanders will deliver real change.
Ultimately, although it is unclear who will win the Democratic nomination at this early stage, Bernie Sanders, with his huge $34.5 million fundraising haul in the fourth quarter, as well as his uptick in support in vital early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, is certainly one to watch.