The first time Tad Devine met Bernie Sanders, in 1996, the political consultant did what he does best: gave him advice for how to win.
Then a House member from Vermont running for his fourth term, Sanders was skeptical of Washington political types, of which Devine was the epitome. An experienced Democratic media strategist, Devine had worked on the campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis. He told Sanders, now Vermont's junior senator, that to keep his seat in the House, he needed to make sure that voters knew which side he was on.
"Remember, Bernie's an independent. I'm a Democrat," Devine told National Journal. "I asked Bernie, 'Listen, if it's tied between the Democrats and Republicans, are you gonna vote for Gingrich, or are you gonna vote for Gephardt for speaker?' And he was like, 'What, are you kidding? What, are you crazy?' He came back full Bernie on that."
Of course, Devine recalled, he'd vote for Missouri Democrat Dick Gephardt. Devine got a kick out of Sanders's direct, unequivocating style, he said, and the two hit it off.
Eighteen years later, Sanders has all but announced that a presidential run is in his future—and longtime friend Devine is on board. A few months ago, the senator broached the possibility with the veteran media consultant, who, since advising Sanders's 1996 House campaign, has worked on both Al Gore's and John Kerry's bids for the White House. Ever since, the two have been talking about the prospect. "I think we have a meeting scheduled sometime next week," Devine said.
The self-proclaimed socialist is widely considered a long-shot for the Democratic nomination—though he's an independent, he has implied he wouldn't run as a third-party candidate so as not to play spoiler—let alone for the Oval Office. A Sanders campaign would surely move the national conversation to the left, ensuring that the progressive issues he's championed for decades—such as wealth inequality, the outsize role of special interests in politics, and campaign finance reform—get airtime, and push Hillary Clinton, the Democratic heir apparent, to address them. Beyond that, it's assumed, he wouldn't gain real traction. For Devine, though, success is absolute.
"My view of campaigns is, you get in them to win," he said. Extensive research, sustained voter contact, and technology for mobilization are key elements of that. "You bring all those things together, not to make a statement, but to make a difference in people's lives. And the way you do that is not just seeking political office, but winning political office."
The GOP's midterm romp proves just how ready the country is for a politician like Sanders, Devine said. Republicans didn't win because voters want to embrace their policies; people were voting for a different direction—and voting against President Obama.
Likely Republican presidential contenders, such as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, have tried their hardest to tie Clinton, their assumed opponent, to Obama, whom many voters disdain. This, too, seems to be an emerging strategy for Sanders's impending campaign.
"If a better alternative was offered," he said, "an alternative that put people ahead of powerful interests, that made it clear who's side of the fight you were on, that laid out a set of policies that could work in the real world, in favor of people, I think a lot of those people who voted for Republicans would make a different choice."
Devine also repeatedly stressed the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire, the two key early-primary states. Sanders, a longtime proponent of campaign finance reform, would have a head start in those states because of the massive outside spending in the midterms there.
"People in Iowa and New Hampshire have just gone through this experience, have seen it up close in their Senate races," Devine told National Journal. "So this isn't gonna be some theory about how money affects politics. It's very practical and very immediate for people in those states. And I think Bernie is really going to frame his message by talking about those things.
"Like a lot of issues he's been talking about for a long time, they're catching up with him," he added. "He's been talking about them for years, and now they're coming into focus for people in a much more meaningful way."
Still, a big hurdle for a Sanders campaign would be the senator's hard-left political views. Devine admits that while Sanders is beloved in Vermont, he would face some struggle transitioning to a national stage. Devine is confident, however, that Sanders could gain not only name recognition, but also credibility as a serious contender.
"The way you get over that skepticism and not be considered a fringe candidate," Devine said, "is by putting together the resources that you need to communicate a message, putting together a campaign mechanism that people can look at and can see that there is the capacity to run a serious campaign on the ground in the early states, through mass media, and through the new tools of politics which President Obama has succeeded so well with in two presidential campaigns."
Devine said Sanders, a gruff man who, at 73, says what he means and could easily be described as crotchety if he didn't talk so lovingly about his grandkids, is "easily misunderstood." When people have the chance to really get to know Sanders, and spend time with him, "you realize why people like him," he said. "He's direct with them, he connects with them, he very much provides a voice for people who don't have a lot of voice in Washington."
Though unofficial 2016 campaigning has already started for many contenders—including Sanders, who has paid visits to early-primary states—voters across the country won't have years to personally get to know the senator. That's why Devine would hammer the early primary states—Iowa and New Hampshire, in particular—with "hundreds of town-hall meetings, a format that he will be extremely comfortable in."
That, most of all, would be the key to Sanders's success on a national stage: voters getting to know who the senator really is. Unlike Devine, though, they won't have 18 years to do it.