Bernie Sanders doesn’t do things by half measures. As he vies to become the 46th president of the United States he is looking to shatter no fewer than three historic records.
President Sanders would be the first Jewish incumbent of the most powerful office on Earth. Aged 79 on inauguration day, he would become the oldest president in US history having unseated the current record-holder, Donald Trump, 73.
Most striking of all, he would be the first American commander-in-chief describing himself as a “democratic socialist”. Judging by recent attacks from his detractors – Democratic ones, not Trump supporters – that is the political equivalent of carrying the coronavirus.
“I’ll tell you what it adds up to,” said Pete Buttigieg, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, at this week’s TV debate ahead of Saturday’s primary in South Carolina. Buttigieg referenced Sanders’ “radical” policies of universal tax-funded healthcare, debt-free college tuition and a Green New Deal to tackle the climate crisis, then said: “It adds up to four more years of Donald Trump.”
On Tuesday Sanders has the chance to take his political insurgency and wipe it across the nation. In the 2020 cycle, Super Tuesday is even more super-charged than usual, providing him with an opportunity to take his already impressive lead over Buttigieg and six other Democratic rivals and virtually blast them out of the water.
Now Super Tuesday promises to project him to all-but invincible heights. Fourteen states go to the polls on 3 March, between them commanding two-thirds of the 1991 delegates he needs to win outright.
In all but two of those states, Sanders is competitively placed or head and shoulders above the pack, including in his home turf of Vermont. But the real prize is California.
With its gargantuan crop of 451 delegates – a quarter of those needed to secure the Democratic nomination, no questions asked – California’s participation in this year’s Super Tuesday has shaken up the race. Combine the state, where Sanders is currently polling a 13-point lead over next-placed Elizabeth Warren, with delegate-rich Texas, which also goes to the polls on Tuesday, and the buzz of expectation in Sanders’ circles is almost as palpable as the fear coursing through everyone else.
“If Sanders cleans up in California and Texas, he is almost guaranteed a plurality of the delegates nationwide,” said political analyst Larry Sabato. “I don’t see anyone who could come close.”
Success on Tuesday is certain to take the already shrill debate about democratic socialism and crank it to ear-splitting levels. Buttigieg’s claim that Sanders’ radicalism is a gift to Trump, rendering the US senator from Vermont all but unelectable, will become the rallying cry of the moderate Democrats still clinging to presidential life.
Sanders is having none of it. At a rally this week in Virginia – another of the Super Tuesday states – he ridiculed the idea that he was extreme. “My critics say ‘Bernie is so radical!’ I don’t think it’s radical to say that working people should have the right to live in dignity and security.”
As for his electability, Sanders thundered: “We are going to defeat Trump because American people do not like frauds and pathological liars.”
The possibility that “democratic socialist” might harm Sanders, in turn inflicting terrible damage on America and the world by giving Trump four more years, certainly bears contemplating. The US is, after all, the crucible of capitalism with a long tradition of individualism and suspicion of overweening government.
People think of Bernie as an ideological leader and not an organisational leader, but he’s both
To get a sense of America’s enduring political prejudices, a survey Gallup has been conducting since the 1950s makes for interesting reading. It shows that on almost all fronts – race, religion, sexuality – the country has loosened up immensely over the decades.
Americans would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who is: Jewish by 93% (great news for Sanders and Bloomberg); over 70 years old by 69% (not bad for Sanders, Bloomberg and Warren); female by 93% (great for Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the last two women in the race); gay or lesbian by 78% (good for Buttigieg, who is gay).
But socialist? That rates a miserable 45%.
Nor did Sanders’ recent praise of Fidel Castro’s literacy program in Cuba help, stirring up old Cold War antagonisms. Some of the more piercing attacks from his Democratic adversaries have also intensified the issue, notably the suggestion from Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire late entrant into the race, that Russia was trying to boost Sanders’ nomination hopes because that’s the best way of ensuring re-election for Trump.
Against that, Sanders can point to any number of polls that have him beating Trump more convincingly than any of his Democratic rivals. The idea that socialism remains a bogey word has also been disputed, as has the sharp distinction between “radical” versus “moderate” Democrats.
As the former US secretary of labor Robert Reich has argued, those concepts are obsolete in an age of soaring inequality when so many Americans feel “politically disempowered and economically insecure”.
Greg Guma, a Vermont resident who has known Sanders since 1971, believes the whole socialism thing is overblown by the media. “It’s not like he ran as a socialist or or even mentioned it. I have never heard him utter the word. Right now the Democrats are doing Trump’s work for him by red baiting.”
Guma, the author of The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, recalls that when he first met Sanders they quarreled over political identity. Sanders was then running for an anti-Vietnam war party, Liberty Union, and wanted only to talk about the “movement”.
Guma wanted the candidate to open up about himself. “You’re a person, not a movement, you have to prove you’re a basically good person if you want my vote,” he told him.
To which the fledgling politician replied: “It’s the movement that’s important. I don’t want your vote.”
If Guma’s account ended there, it would reinforce the image of the crusty old, rigid, dogmatic ideologue that Sanders’ enemies promote. But over the years, Guma says, he saw the emergence of a very different politician, one who builds coalitions and works across the aisle.
“As an intelligent person, he knew that what mattered was not what labels were pinned on him, but how he did as a political manager – and he did that rather effectively. He is very good at working with people, going beyond his own rhetoric and establishing alliances with unlikely partners including Republicans to get things done.”
Sabato agrees that amid the current brouhaha about socialism, what is being lost is Sanders’ considerable skills as an organiser. “People think of Bernie as an ideological leader and not an organisational leader, but he’s both. That might be the ultimate source of his strength.”
Over the past several years Sanders has followed Barack Obama’s example and laid the foundations of a national network of young, energised supporters that has left his less industrious rivals standing. While his opponents have been screaming about unelectability, Sanders has been quietly doing the unglamorous work it takes to get elected.
He has simply outslogged the competition. That includes Bloomberg, with his $410m glut of TV ads.
“We live in the age of the permanent campaign,” Sabato says. “There’s a big advantage to a candidate who runs flat-out all the time, and that’s what Bernie has done and what Joe Biden and the others haven’t. The Sanders crowd hasn’t taken a day off since 2016.”
The fruits of hard graft are starting to materialise in what Sanders calls a “multigenerational, multiracial coalition sweeping this country”. His ability to mobilise young voters who “feel the Bern” was evident four years ago in his epic battle with Hillary Clinton.
This cycle he is also showing resounding support among Latinos.
In Nevada he won the support of 51% of Hispanic Democrats. That’s a critical statistic. It suggests that his tireless outreach to Latino communities, combined with policies that talk to them such as a $15 federal minimum wage, a moratorium on immigration deportations, and commitment to an NHS-style system of Medicare for All which appeals to the high numbers of Latinos who have no or little health insurance – will pay dividends on Tuesday in heavily Hispanic California and Texas.
The key question now is whether this coalition of young voters, Latinos, African Americans, blue-collar workers and urban progressives is big enough to prevail against Trump. He doesn’t only have to match the ecstatic enthusiasm that Trump can muster among his “Keep America Great” base – the president’s approval rating among Republicans is at an astronomical 90%.
Sanders also has to compensate for those voters balking at the idea of a tax-and-spend socialist in the White House. That is particularly true in affluent suburbs where independent and moderate Republicans who are disaffected with Trump – especially women – were key to Democrats taking back the House of Representatives in 2018.
Without such a surge in turnout Sanders could suffer the same fate as Clinton, winning the popular vote but still being outgunned in the electoral college. It only took 77,744 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, out of a total of 137m nationally, to hand Trump the presidency in 2016.
“The early promise from the Sanders camp that only he could generate a large turnout of minorities and young people who failed to turn out for Hillary Clinton is not necessarily true,” Sabato says. “Turnout has been underwhelming so far, and it’s all about getting voters to show up.”
So the still-crowded Democratic field remains far from settled. Super Tuesday may clarify matters, but if it fails to deliver a clear winner a primary season that is already fractured and ill-tempered will grow uglier by the day.
To add to the jitters, there is even talk of the nightmare scenario. Should Sanders fail to gain an overall majority in the delegate count by the end of the primaries in June he faces the prospect at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin a month later of a brokered convention.
At that point “super delegates” – some 771 officials and potentates of the Democratic party – could use their establishment power to block him from the nomination. It would provide a spectacular ending to what is turning into an impressively unedifying process.
But it would benefit only one person: the man gleefully watching the fireworks from his vantage point in the Oval Office.