Yes, Sanders can (by his own admission) come off as a crank, but his crankiness matches the times. Lots of Democrats are angry about the state of the country. Sanders hates all the right things and rails against them, and it’s this anger, more than the specifics of his solutions, that has proved essential to his appeal. Warren wants technocratic, if sweeping, changes to the system. Sanders is faster to wish a pox on it.
He has also benefited from a strong campaign. Like many first-time presidential candidates, Sanders led an often chaotic and error-prone effort in 2016. Like all the best second-time candidates, he has learned from those mistakes. He built a large organization in 2016, maintained it between elections, and brought that into this race. The campaign has done a good job of working to fix problems that became clear in 2016, most of all Sanders’s weakness with nonwhite voters.
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The fruits of that effort are now appearing. As The New York Times notes, Sanders’s recent surge in polls is largely due to an influx of support from black and Latino voters. (Biden still leads by a wide margin among African Americans overall.) Sanders faces an uphill battle here, because minority voters are more likely to identify as moderates, but nonwhites said in a recent CNN poll that Sanders understands their problems better than Biden—another sign of personal, rather than policy-specific, appeal.
Matt Yglesias flags a survey from Data for Progress that shows Sanders leading President Donald Trump in head-to-head polls, even when voters are cued with a mention of Sanders’s socialism. It doesn’t make much difference—the Vermonter leads either way. Yglesias theorizes that Trump’s attempts at red-scaring aren’t working. That’s possible, but it’s also possible that the “socialist” tag simply doesn’t hurt Sanders, because voters like him personally.
Personal appeal also explains why Sanders has flourished, including in places like Iowa, while other self-described socialists have not. When Democrats nominated left-wing candidates for congressional districts in Republican territory, those candidates flopped, while more moderate ones were more likely to succeed.
This is not to say that some of Sanders’s policies are not popular—both with Democrats and with the broader population. But as Sanders himself has noted, this is less a sign of incipient revolution than it is of the vagueness of the socialist label and the existing, if underappreciated, leftist tendencies already present in American society.
“In many respects we have a socialist society today, we have a huge budget, puts money into all areas,” Sanders said on Fox News Sunday this weekend. “Now, Donald Trump, before he was president, as a private businessperson, he received $800 million in tax breaks and subsidies to build luxury housing in New York … The difference between my socialism and Trump’s socialism is, I believe the government should help working families, not billionaires. So I believe that health care is a human right. I believe we should raise the minimum wage to a living wage of $15 an hour.”