When a not particularly well-known senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) entered the race for the Democratic Party nomination in 2016, it set off a rebellion among young voters that leapt across the generational gap of its septuagenarian leader.
With only two credible runners standing (Sanders and former secretary of State Hillary Clinton) those primaries became a contest between the party establishment and a liberal insurgency that adopted the banner of “democratic socialism”. Sanders was it champion. He rescued for the US political narrative a word that only a few years before was seen as better avoided for anyone with political aspirations.
Now Sanders is going back on the campaign trial seeking the Democratic party’s nomination for 2020 and with the ultimate goal of evicting Donald Trump from the White House, a man the senator considers as “the most dangerous president in modern American history”.
“Our campaign is about transforming our country and creating a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice”, said Sanders in a video launching his candidacy.
Although that “transformation” could seem a normal aspiration for some, critics will surely denounce it as part of the extremism that is taking hold among the new Democrats who became active after 2016 and whose main exponent is New York congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Sanders was the champion of a sort of juvenile rebellion inside the Democratic Party. He gained more votes among voters 30 years or less during the primaries than Clinton and Trump combined, according to The Center for Information andt Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
By June 2016, by the end of the primaries, Sanders got 30% votes more than the sum Clinton and Trump put together. It was the logical numeric expression of what could be perceived on the campaign trial, with events full of enthusiastic millennials curiously following an old man as if he were a rock star.
It was not enough to win the race. Among the Sanders flock, many were left with a deep frustration (some even talk about being cheated by the party, a mantel Trump took over as part of his strategy to divide the Democrats ahead of the elections)
But 2019 is not 2016
This year the field is quite different. So far 14 Democrats have thrown their hat into the ring, in what it is expected to be the most crowded Democrat primary in history. Five are women. And some names share the democratic socialist ideas of Sanders, including Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) or Congresswomen Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)
Sanders no longer has a monopoly on these progressives ideas. Sanders´ campaign highlights the likelihood of his defeating Trump, something that polls have consistently shown. (Only former vice-president Joe Biden performs better against the president. But Biden hasn’t said yet if he is running.)
The appeal Sanders could have among the working class would help to broaden the Democratic party’s base in conservative strongholds, his supporters hope, even putting some otherwise unattainable seats in play.
But still, Sanders will have to overcome the weak link of his previous campaign, to gather enough support among minorities. Latinos and black voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton.
“The truth is that by the end of the campaign we were winning a significant percentage of the African American vote among young people. With people under 35 we were winning the African American vote, the Latino vote, the Asian vote. We were doing extremely well among young people. We were not doing so well among older people and we are going to focus on that.”, said Sanders during an interview with Univision.
And according to his reading of some polls, Sanders is confident that this time he could built on that younger base to reach the older electorate.
Sanders vs. Trump
Sanders is now 77, one year older than Biden. But he has shown that he has more than enough energy to enter a new race. But it’s still something to consider: if elected, the senator will be 79 when he takes office, making him the oldest president in US history. The current record holder, at age 74, is Donald Trump.
To run against President Trump would make another big difference this time for Sanders. As Republican candidate, Trump picked up support in areas that traditionally voted Democrat, such as the Rust Belt, home of a middle class affected by the toxic mix of globalization and job cuts due to technology-driven workplace innovation and efficiency.
During the midterms many of those voters came back to help Democrats score their biggest congressional win in decades, and Sanders has a good reach into that electorate. But the connection Trump created was strong. Will that link endure through the rest of his presidential term, or can Sanders win those voters back to his party? Will the bern be felt once agian across the Democratic Party? That’s something to watch for.