Bernie Sanders Is Ready to Rumble

The senator from Vermont thinks he can prevail against the crowded Democratic field and then beat Trump for president in 2020.

Bernie Sanders
Patrick Semansky / AP

Bernie Sanders has seen himself as on a mission since he started running for office in the 1970s, and he sees no reason to stop now. He thinks he’s dramatically changed the conversation over the past three years, and he feels like he’s close to achieving his ultimate goal.

Plus, there’s Donald Trump.

When the president used his State of the Union speech on Tuesday to preview his own reelection campaign and warn against creeping socialism, Sanders was only encouraged. He’d love to take on Trump directly, and people around him think he’ll be able to use Trump’s threat to coalesce support in the primaries.

“Nothing unifies Democrats like being made a villain by Trump,” said one Sanders ally.

The senator from Vermont has been huddling with staff in meetings and brainstorming on phone calls over the past few weeks, chewing over plans. Barring a surprise, last-minute change of heart, he will jump into the 2020 race, convinced he can win, according to people familiar with his plans. His spokeswoman, Arianna Jones, did not return a request for comment on Sanders’s plans.

Last time, he didn’t get in until the end of April 2015. This time, the launch will be in February. He sees advantage in a much more crowded 2020 field. The left-leaning politics he campaigned on in 2016 have been broadly embraced in a progressive surge among Democrats, and Sanders has succeeded in diminishing the nominating power of so-called super delegates, the elected officials and party elders who help consolidate establishment power within the Democratic National Committee.

Sanders will likely announce an exploratory committee in the coming weeks, followed by a rally. One major early focus will be finding a campaign manager and other top-level staffers who are not white, and preferably not male, in light of his problems appealing to minority voters in 2016 and recent revelations of sexual harassment by lower-level staffers on the 2016 campaign. Staff interviews have been quietly under way.

But a core team of advisers will return from 2016, spearheaded by Sanders’s wife and closest adviser, Jane O’Meara Sanders.

His aides know this race will be different from his 2016 run against Hillary Clinton, when he surprised even himself with how close he came to knocking her off. Democratic leaders have been impressed by the extent to which the ideas from his campaign have carried forward, injecting far-left populism into the mainstream of Democratic politics—even as many in the party still bitterly point to his candidacy as weakening Clinton to the point that Trump was able to win.

Sanders has heard the argument that his stature would be diminished by running again if he doesn’t end up winning the nomination. He’s heard the argument that he might split the progressive vote and allow a more moderate candidate to win, but that hasn’t moved him either. That’s not how Sanders thinks, people who know him point out.

“He understands what happens in the streets is what prompts actions in Washington,” said Vincent Fort, a former Georgia state senator who supported the last campaign and has been in touch with Sanders’s team about this campaign.

There are also the nuts-and-bolts political considerations that Sanders doesn’t focus as much on, but that his team pays close attention to: He’s the one with the massive email list. Alone among those eyeing the Democratic nomination, he’s the one who had 40,000 people watching various live-streams of his State of the Union response. He’s the one whose team thinks he could, on day one, raise more money online and get more attention than any of the other candidates.

Sanders believes that he continues to have the strength in Iowa and New Hampshire to either win or come close there—especially with other candidates fragmenting support and lowering the bar for what it will take to win. Likewise, in a South Carolina primary that has both Cory Booker and Kamala Harris competing for African American votes and, likely, Joe Biden drawing on his own decades of connections there, Sanders sees a path to slip through and win.

Biden in the race, after all, would make it so that the senator isn’t the only white man in his 70s in the field.

If the early states all come together, Sanders would be positioned to power through the front-ended primary calendar that has California, Texas, and several other big states voting on the first Super Tuesday, March 4, just a month after Iowa. No one else in the field has anything like his proven success with both grassroots supporters and the small-dollar online fundraising that it will take to fund the kind of massive national operation any 2020 campaign will require.

“With all the other people in, the fact is, Bernie is the one whose ideas everyone else is ‘borrowing,’ whether it be Wall Street reforms, or Medicare for all, or free college. These are all ideas that Bernie came up with first and best,” Fort said. “I’m a little bit skeptical of the sincerity of some of the latecomers.”

Changes to DNC procedures, which Sanders and his team fought for, have diminished the role of the caucuses where Sanders ran the strongest in 2016, but they have also taken power away from the elected officials and party elders who might, for example, help tilt a tight race to Biden or another candidate who isn’t an outsider insurgent.

Sanders’s team has been eyeing Beto O’Rourke nervously, given the former Texas congressman’s strong online presence and appeal with many of the same types of voters that Sanders taps into. O’Rourke also drew significant support from young former Sanders staffers who helped build the 2016 campaign into what it was. But there’s a sense that O’Rourke’s support is flagging, as he continues to talk about running without making a decision.

Now a Sanders candidacy would seem to be the biggest threat to Elizabeth Warren, who’s been campaigning on her own anti-corporate platform, with proposals such as a new tax on the ultrarich. Aides to the senator from Massachusetts have been preparing her on how to respond. But though they will clearly compete for some of the same voters, Sanders and his aides have always seen him as a greater threat to her than she is to him, and have been encouraged by the continuing problems she’s facing from the controversy over her claims of Native American heritage. He’s the one with the devoted followers, Sanders and his aides believe, and some of them are still angry at Warren for deciding to sit out the 2016 primary race rather than endorsing him.

What a Sanders candidacy may do for Warren, though, is enable her not to seem as radical as his democratic socialism. It might also enable her to note that she’s a generation younger than Sanders, as opposed to currently being the oldest Democratic candidate in the field. And a Sanders candidacy might allow Warren to argue that she’s largely in line with him politically, but the one who could actually win.

A Warren spokeswoman declined comment on how Warren would position herself if Sanders runs.

Sanders boosters note that with a field this big, coming in first in Iowa might take only about 30 percent of the vote, and that he came just shy of 50 percent of the vote there against Clinton. Rules changes to the caucuses might also play to Sanders’s favor, clarifying an arcane process that weighs votes in a way that can make the final results not fully representative of the number of people who actually show up on caucus night.

But Sanders skeptics doubt that he fully appreciates how much of the approximately 45 percent of the primary vote he received in 2016 was fundamentally an anti-Clinton vote, and doubt that he realizes how many of those people might leave him once they realize how many other choices they have. Unlike in his last run, he will start right away with the spotlight of a presumed front-runner on him, and issues involving his background and record that were overlooked in 2016 will likely receive new scrutiny. Warren, Biden, and Harris have been the focus of most of the Republican attacks and reporters’ digging so far, but that dynamic may shift if Sanders continues to run as strong as public polling suggests.

There’s the potential that once he’s in, any stumbles will be higher profile, and any drop-off in the polls could suggest he’s leaching support. Already, in the past week he waited until after all the declared Democratic candidates to call for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to resign over the blackface/Ku Klux Klan–hood photo. He also faced outrage for doing his own State of the Union response for the third year in a row; this year’s followed Stacey Abrams’s official Democratic response. Some griped that he was being disrespectful, a charge that Sanders and his team found ridiculous, even as they dealt with the fallout.

He spent most of his response explaining how Trump’s supposed economic miracle hasn’t reached many people in the country.

“I know that this will probably not shock you—I hate to say this—but not everything Donald Trump said tonight was true or accurate,” Sanders said in a live video on social media.*  “For many of President Trump’s billionaire friends, the truth is, they have never, ever had it so good. But for the middle class, and for the working families of our country, the truth is that the economy is not so good.”

*This article originally misstated that Sanders delivered his response to the State of the Union address immediately after Trump spoke.  In fact, Sanders delivered his response after Stacey Abrams finished giving the Democrats’ official response to the president’s address.