There are internal challenges, as well. Sanders has carried a grudge against Tad Devine, the consultant who helped design his 2016 campaign. The two had a falling out because Devine wanted the senator to more quickly endorse Hillary Clinton. They haven’t spoken for two years—and Devine and the other partners in his firm severed ties with the Sanders campaign last week over differences in operational philosophy. On The View last week, Sanders rejected the suggestion of getting advice on the campaign this time around from Clinton. On Sunday in Selma, Alabama, appearing with Clinton at an annual civil-rights breakfast, he only briefly acknowledged her and shook her hand so quickly as he left the stage that some in the room missed the interaction entirely.
Even his loyal staff members at times feel slighted, and have learned not to expect much in the way of small talk or interest in anything but the work they’re doing. Pretty much everyone who’s worked for him does an impression of “the old man,” as many of his 2016 campaign aides referred to him, interrupting them, in his deep Brooklyn accent, to make a point of his own.
This has also carried over to his relationship with reporters, who have become accustomed to being dismissed or ignored by Sanders, or to having him keep fury alive for years over stories that angered him.
“Sanders’s remedy for what ails the media—uncritical, stenographic coverage of his agenda—betrays a misunderstanding of the role of a free press,” wrote Paul Heintz, the political editor of the Vermont newsweekly Seven Days, in a Washington Post op-ed last week, reflecting a sense that is familiar to many who have covered Sanders over the years. “And his dismissal of legitimate journalism not to his liking as ‘political gossip’ bears a troubling resemblance to what another politician refers to as ‘fake news.’”
To humanize Sanders, the campaign is already planning smaller events, from issue-based roundtables with voters to impromptu stops and meetings with activists. But the stuff that most think of as key elements of crucial retail campaigning—swinging through a diner, taking selfies along a parade route—isn’t expected to become part of the normal routine. Long speeches at big rallies will remain his go-to because that’s how Sanders feels most comfortable.
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s 2016 campaign manager who is now a senior adviser to the 2020 campaign, was among those who pushed this time around to “introduce Bernie as a person to people so that they understand the very real connection between his life, his history, and the policies he advocates,” he says.
Weaver, speaking shortly with me before the rally in Chicago began on Sunday night, said that “it’s not about making him likable. It is about making his policies relatable.”
Onstage in Chicago, Sanders recalled being involved in fighting racial discrimination in housing owned by the University of Chicago, where he was an undergrad. A student-activist group that he was involved in ran stings, he said, sending in white couples who were offered apartments that black couples were refused. He’s rarely told this story before.