August 6th, 2020

The Nation

Will Sanders' 2016 supporters rally behind him this time?

 David Weigel

By David Weigel The Washington Post

Published Jan. 14, 2019

Will Sanders' 2016 supporters rally behind him this time?
  Matt McClain for The Washington Post
Saturday afternoon, as Julian Castro was announcing his presidential campaign in Texas and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was making her first campaign stop in New Hampshire, about 50 activists filed into a Maryland coffee shop with a mission: to draft Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., into the 2020 primary.

"We've been told the Bernie is not going to announce today," said Paul Butterworth, the scientist and political activist who'd organized the party. "Don't expect a surprise today. But I think it's inevitable that he will run."

It's not inevitable - Sanders seems genuinely conflicted about running again - but Butterfield's event was one of at least 400 house parties Saturday, from Alaska to Austria, designed to nudge him in. For 30 minutes, activists at each party watched a live stream of prominent Sanders supporters explaining to them that the only questions for a Sanders victory were whether he ran and whether his movement was ready.

"We want the man that was in the arena in 2016 to continue this journey, and we will be by his side," Nina Turner, the president of Our Revolution, said on the live stream.

The idea and organizing structure came from Our Revolution (a group the senator himself co-founded), People for Bernie (which he didn't) and Organizing for Bernie (which grew out of People for Bernie).

"This is about getting into formation," said Winnie Wong, a co-founder of People for Bernie and organizer of next week's Women's March, in an interview. "I told Bernie we were doing this, and he seemed really shocked at the number of sign-ups and events. Frankly, I'm a little shocked, because I thought we'd only get 150 or 200. If every volunteer sticks with this, that's an army."

No one considering a Democratic primary campaign has the built-in support of Sanders, whose 2016 bid left him with about 14 million votes, 46 percent of nearly 4,000 pledged delegates and the largest donor email list in politics.

Still, this weekend began with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, one of just three members of the House who endorsed Sanders before his or her state's 2016 primary, announcing her own campaign. The previous weekend saw Warren, with a message that shares plenty of DNA with Sanders', make a successful five-stop tour of Iowa. Even Castro, who entered the race on Saturday, used his subsequent media hits to embrace Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and a higher tax rate on the superrich.

The looming question: How many of the people who got behind Sanders in 2016 are still ready to support him in a contest that's not a binary "establishment vs. outsider" choice? While the house parties were unfolding, Warren was filling a room in Manchester, N.H.; more than a few of the people who'd shown up had backed Sanders.

"I was with him even before the first rallies in New Hampshire, but I think this is wide open," John Hall, 68, said at Warren's Manchester event. "There's been a shift in the Democratic Party; there've been young people coming into the party who see what Bernie saw. I think that Elizabeth Warren is one of the people who sees what Bernie saw."

The voters who backed Sanders in 2016 fit into about three camps. The first, like Hall, agreed with the senator's message and wanted to - at least - move Hillary Clinton to the left before her inevitable nomination. The second, smaller camp, backed Sanders with no real intention of voting Democratic in November; about 33 percent of Democrats who voted in West Virginia's 2016 primary, which Sanders won, said they would support Donald Trump.

The third camp, represented at the weekend house parties, believed that Sanders would have won the presidency, that he would win it in 2020 and that no other Democrat could be trusted to deliver radical, substantive change if elected. At the Greenbelt party, held at the New Deal Cafe ("ensuring domestic tranquility since 1995"), activists confronted the reality that Sanders was in a strong but not commanding position if he ran again.

"It looks like it's going to be a brutal primary," said Cecilia Hall, the 2016 volunteer engagement manager for the Sanders campaign, on the live stream. "In 2015, we had the advantage of surprise."

Claire Sandberg, the digital organizing director for the 2016 campaign, said in an interview that Sanders' strength was being underrated - especially if he moved quickly. The "who's this guy?" factor of the last campaign had been replaced with name recognition, which most other Democrats would spend the year working to build. Sanders, who spent the midterms helping other insurgent candidates create campaigns from scratch, was waiting for the next call.

"Last time around, Bernie started out with 5 percent name recognition, and the biggest challenge for the campaign was that voters didn't know who he was," said Sandberg, standing at the back of the New Deal. "Broadcast media completely blocked out coverage of him. We ran out of runway by the time everyone was voting. Now, we start out with everyone knowing who Bernie is, and he's the most popular politician in the country."

But with that name recognition have come scrutiny and negativity that have made Sanders supporters bristle. Some of Sanders' allies have also attacked the coverage of the 2016 campaign's harassment complaints, which Sanders himself has apologized for, and which one of Saturday's presentations (from Sheila Healy, discussing the senator's 2018 re-election campaign training) suggested could never happen again. Nomiki Konst, a Sanders delegate now running for New York public advocate, said last week that the harassment story was being used to hurt activists who had nothing to do with it.

"I think, unfortunately, the (hash)MeToo movement has been used as a political weapon in this case. It has to be dealt with no matter what, but it is not something that feeds into this old 'Bernie bro' narrative," Konst told interviewers from The Hill.

Near the end of Saturday's meeting, activists ran down their potential persuasion targets: voters who considered Sanders too radical, voters who did not think he was radical enough and voters who believed that the electoral system was "rigged" and not worth participating in.

There would be more meetings. Four hundred house parties in January - that was more than any other candidates' supporters were doing. But reaching out to Democrats who liked much of Sanders' agenda and could be sold on a new candidate would not be easy.

"I hear people say: 'I love Bernie, but he's too old now,' " Butterworth said. "He's 'an old white man.' That is the phrase I keep hearing."

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