NEW YORK, N.Y.—Bernie Sanders’s heart attack may have been the best thing to happen to his campaign.
“Imagine,” the top adviser Jeff Weaver joked to me ahead of the senator’s rally in Queens yesterday, “Bernie with full blood flow.”
What that looked like: a speech that stretched for nearly an hour, with only a few croaks of his voice, coupled with a deeply personal endorsement from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who said her ascension in American politics was only possible because of Sanders. It all went down in front of the biggest crowd Sanders has drawn in this campaign so far—and at 25,000 people strong, it was the biggest crowd any Democratic candidate has drawn all year.
For months, Sanders’s campaign was largely listless. Sanders still had a devoted following, though most polls suggested what was obvious on the ground: Fans were drifting to other candidates, most obviously Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. At events in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond, I heard the same comments from longtime Sanders supporters: They still loved him and were grateful for how he’d jolted Democratic politics to the left, but he was too old to be president, and it was time for someone else to step up. The heart attack seemed like a macabre metaphor for the state of Sanders’s campaign.
But contrarianism runs deep in the senator from Vermont—a 2016 campaign aide once described one of Sanders’s main animating principles to me as: “Fuck me? No, fuck you!” With his comeback, Sanders seems to be saying just that—not only to any detractors ready to write him off, but to the organ pumping inside his own chest.
And his supporters have responded.
“I kind of thought [his heart attack] was the end of the campaign, but the boost has been significant, and I’m encouraged by it,” said Quinn Miller, a 33-year-old city-government worker wearing a blue Unidos con Bernie T-shirt.
“It got everyone rallied,” said Erik Pye, a 45-year-old Army veteran and store owner from Brooklyn. “It gave everyone a sense of urgency.”
The incident seems to have made serious again all the Sanders supporters who’d recently wandered off, I observed to 28-year-old Elizabeth Johnson, who’d traveled from Rhode Island with her boyfriend. “Serious,” she joked, “as a heart attack.”
At the start of Sanders’s 2020 run, his aides made a point of telling reporters that his approach would be different from 2016: He would speak more personally about his life story and how his own experiences are at the root of his democratic-socialist politics—an attempt to connect with voters who kept their distance four years ago. That strategy lasted one weekend. At events since then, he’s often taken on the air of an annoyed grandfather who wants to say “I told you so” to the Democratic candidates who’ve adopted some of his more progressive policies.
The heart attack has given the campaign new material, and a new message. “Bernie’s too old?” asked the filmmaker Michael Moore, mocking pundits, in his endorsement speech at the rally. No, he said, what’s too old is the Electoral College, a $7.25 minimum wage, and the use of fossil fuels. People are worried about Sanders’s health? Moore said he’s worried about the health of the planet, and the health of young black men shot by police. “The only heart attack we should be talking about is the one Wall Street is going to have when Bernie Sanders is president of the United States,” Moore said.
In a nod to supporters’ suspicions about anti-Sanders sentiment in the Democratic Party, Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator who is a campaign co-chair, told the crowd to beware of ageism, and noted that Sanders was the only candidate asked about his health at the Democrats’ latest debate. (Of course, he’s the only one who recently had a major health incident.)
Perhaps most important, Sanders’s heart attack seems to have encouraged Ocasio-Cortez’s attention-grabbing endorsement. They had breakfast in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont, a few days before the episode, but her announcement’s timing was motivated by her desire to give the campaign a boost right when Sanders needed one, her advisers have said. Now, Sanders said in his speech, they’ll travel the country together, aiming to create what she called “a mass mobilization of working people.”
At 2020 campaign events, it’s common to hear voters rattle off a shortlist of candidates they’re willing to vote for. The Sanders supporters I spoke with yesterday, however, have only one name on their list.
“Bernie is really the only candidate in my lifetime that I think I can trust,” said Peter Vellon, a 51-year-old history professor from Long Island.
“The party needs to move to the left, and Bernie’s the only candidate who can do that,” said Gary Pallens, a 66-year-old retired pharmaceutical-industry worker from Westchester County, New York.
Talking with voters in the crowd, though, I noticed a real shift from the “Bernie or bust” attitude many Sanders supporters have had since 2016. That could be linked to the additional time they’ve spent watching other candidates, especially Warren, and realizing that they may need to settle. But mostly it seemed to be a reaction to Donald Trump, and the fear—which Sanders himself has expressed—that the president could be reelected.
All of the nearly two dozen people I spoke with at the rally said that they’re committed to voting for the Democratic nominee even if Bernie busts.
“I’m going to vote blue—I’m not anti–Elizabeth Warren; I’m pro–Bernie Sanders,” said 31-year-old Nicole Pena, who works in media. “It would be a begrudging choice.” Former Vice President Joe Biden was the only candidate rally-goers named as someone they’d have trouble supporting. (There’s no way Biden could pull off an event like Sanders’s rally—he was in New York yesterday, too, but at two small high-dollar fundraisers. Sanders, who gave a more energetic debate performance than Biden this month despite his recent hospitalization, has $33.7 million in the bank, compared with Biden’s $8.9 million.)
Sanders’s path to the nomination remains difficult to see at this point. He’d need a surge in public support beyond what any big rally is able to bring. Supporters I spoke with hope that he’ll keep pushing to the Democratic National Convention in the summer, in the hopes of bringing together a brokered win, or at least playing the kingmaker during the nomination process.
Jim Simko, a 33-year-old engineer who works on construction sites in the city, echoed a slightly twisted sentiment that’s become common among Sanders supporters following his heart attack: Just let him win, and even if he doesn’t make it through his term, the work will go on.
“He’ll live or he’ll die, but he’s pushed the Overton window,” said Simko, who voted for the libertarian Gary Johnson in 2016, though he said it was mostly to troll Hillary Clinton.
“You can’t kill ideas, and they can’t die either,” said his friend Joseph Olszewski, a 29-year-old electrician. “I’d like to see him live through one term at least.”
Or perhaps, Simko said, Sanders has already survived the premature aging that creeps up on so many presidents once they’re in office. “What color does hair turn after white?” he joked.