“Let me do something that I have been criticized for not doing as a politician,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told a packed audience at an Islamic center in Los Angeles early on a Saturday morning in March, “and be a little bit personal.”
“I don’t like talking about myself very much,” he added. “I much prefer talking about ideas.”
The Islamic center visit had been put on Sanders’ schedule the previous afternoon, a last-minute addition to break up his typical itinerary of mass rallies, where he’s much more comfortable railing, impersonally, against the usual list of economic and political injustices. The event, an interfaith gathering of imams, pastors, priests, and rabbis, was the first mosque visit from a major presidential candidate since the New Zealand shooting a week earlier.
Sanders explained that there were “two forces that shaped my political views.” The first was that his family didn’t have much money; his mother, Dora, who died of a heart condition at 46, was never able to achieve her dream of owning a home.
“The second part of my life that shaped my views,” he continued, “was being Jewish—is being Jewish. Crying when I would read books about the Holocaust, these picture books of what happened at Auschwitz and the other concentration camps, and tears would stream down my eyes. And it never occurred to me, I could never understand: Why would people do such terrible and horrible things to people?”
This was not a Bernie Sanders I had ever seen before, and one that his friends, allies, and staff, who speak of getting Bernie to talk about himself as among the hardest feats known to mankind, have worked for years to reveal. There he was connecting his personal story to his political beliefs and comforting a room of people shaken not just by the recent New Zealand shooter’s targeting of Muslims but by the political climate in Donald Trump’s America. His communications director, who insisted to me that the remarks were unprepared, was pleased to see it. This was Bernie looking, well, presidential.
Amid all the prevailing narratives surrounding the early days of the 2020 race—that Beto O’Rourke could either upend, or completely underwhelm, the field; that Elizabeth Warren is struggling to find her footing; that Kamala Harris has had a strong rollout and may have the most room to grow; that Pete Buttigieg has skyrocketed into a contender overnight; and that Joe Biden might be out of his mind to get into this race—there’s one central thread that, somehow, isn’t getting the attention it deserves: Bernie Sanders is starting in a great position to win the nomination. He has the name recognition, the resources, and the base of support. He and Biden have consistently outpaced the field in early polling.
But numerous past and present staff and advisers I spoke to—some of whom remain on speaking terms with the candidate, some of whom don’t—question Sanders’ ability to develop beyond the itinerant preacher spreading the gospel of revolution that got him far, but not far enough, last time. They portray a candidate whose strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same persona. Sanders’ domestic and foreign policy positions have been bold and consistent for decades. As you might have heard, he has a quirky, gruff, cut-to-the-chase authenticity that appeals to voters, especially younger ones, who are sick of the usual bullshit. The flip side, though, is that he can be stubborn, resistant to counsel, and unwilling to evolve as a candidate. Sanders has gone from extreme underdog to legitimate front-runner in a matter of four years. Now the question is whether he can act like one.
In late 2014, Sanders met with Tad Devine, a veteran political consultant with whom he’d worked on past House and Senate races, and told him he was thinking about running for president. Devine was surprised but intrigued. Over the course of the next several months, Sanders, Devine, and a few other close confidants met repeatedly, often at the house of Democratic commentator Bill Press, to explore the possibility. Devine’s consulting partners, Mark Longabaugh and Julian Mulvey, were eager to get on board.
Just before Sanders announced, Devine traveled with him and his wife, Jane, to Vermont for a weekend to talk strategy and to gauge Sanders’ commitment. He also wanted to deliver a message: Bernie probably wasn’t going to beat Hillary Clinton.
“The system is just set up for her to win,” Devine says he told Sanders at the time, citing—among other things—that she would likely receive just about all of the party’s roughly 800 superdelegates. “Tell me why you’re doing this short of winning?”
“And he said, ‘Well, I’m sick and tired of being a backbencher,’ ” Devine told me. “And I said, ‘Well, I think that’s an achievable goal. But you can’t go around saying this is a symbolic candidacy, because people aren’t going to vote for someone who’s running for symbolic reasons.’ ”
The goal of getting off the bench was achieved—and then some. Sanders went from relative unknown to one of the most popular politicians in the country, winning 22 states and 43 percent of the vote against Clinton, all while raising $230 million, building an enormous list of supporters, and setting a new ideological agenda for the Democratic party.
This time around, there is no need for Sanders to rationalize his candidacy—to argue that he wants to get off the back bench, shift the conversation to the left, or offer a protest option for those who can’t stomach the establishment. There is one goal—to win—and he will be judged as a success or failure by that single metric.
When the Sanders campaign began in 2015, the small staff developed a strategy based on a projection that they would raise about $30 million. The strategy required a narrow focus on winning Iowa and New Hampshire, and then hoping that fundraising and name recognition would explode from there. This time, Sanders’ name recognition and fundraising capacity are the envy of the early field. Strong campaigns will need to go “on the air” more or less simultaneously in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and California, where early voting begins the same day as the Iowa caucuses. This will not be cheap, and with the primary calendar so front-loaded this cycle, many candidates—and there are many candidates—will find themselves buried in the delegate count before they’ve been able to fully blossom.
Sanders and his senior team have tried to take advantage of their position by building a larger and more professionalized operation, including a big political department, something it barely had the last time, to reach out to elected officials, so many of whom were previously captured from the get-go by the Clinton campaign.
Sanders’ team is also trying to shed the not-inconsiderable baggage of the last campaign. “Even in reaching out to me,” his new campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, a former aide to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid who had most recently been the ACLU’s national political director, told me, “one of the first things he said was, we were too white and too male. And [he] wanted to make people feel like this was a welcoming movement, like people needed to be extended an open hand.”
The maleness of the last campaign contributed to what numerous 2016 campaign staffers have described as a toxic, sexist atmosphere, where bullying was commonplace and complaints about sexual harassment went nowhere. Sanders’ public comments didn’t help. When asked recently about whether he was aware of the atmosphere, he told CNN that he “was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case” for his candidacy. The campaign insists it has now established the proper HR protocols for complaints to be reported and addressed. And on an early April conference call, Shakir said that the campaign staff was now majority-women and 40 percent people of color, including the three campaign chairs and himself.
The campaign is also aware that it needs to distance its candidate from the so-called Bernie bro phenomenon—those extremely online, aggressive, white male Bernie fans who harass or bully others, especially on social media, and especially women. The debate over whether this sort of behavior is a common characteristic of Bernie supporters or a caricature based on some of the campaign’s most obnoxious online advocates is one that has continued, without interruption, since late 2015 and is not likely to end, ever.
The campaign bristles at the broad-brush description of Bernie’s base, which it views as being wielded against them opportunistically. When I asked Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ 2016 campaign manager who’s serving as a senior adviser this time, about whether he viewed the “Bernie bro” problem as a legitimate one, he directed me to a 2016 Daily Dot article that found Clinton supporters were more aggressive online than Sanders supporters. Nevertheless, Sanders did send a letter to surrogates in late February calling on them to “do our very best to engage respectfully with our Democratic opponents—talking about the issues we are fighting for, not about personalities or past grievances. I want to be clear that I condemn bullying and harassment of any kind and in any space.”
“Remember,” he wrote, “that our struggle is bigger than a Tweet or a Facebook comment.” That letter wasn’t just directed at online harassers. It was a reminder that some Clinton voters from the 2016 primary still hold grudges against Sanders, and vice versa, but everyone’s gotta let it go. Sanders will need those Clinton votes, and it’s best not to dredge all of that up again.
The revelations of sexual harassment and a generally toxic workplace dynamic offered a taste of another dynamic that’s going to be different this time: the intense scrutiny of a leading candidate.
Weaver told me he believes the conventional wisdom—that Hillary Clinton went easy on Sanders last time around, for fear of alienating his base—isn’t accurate. “People understate the amount of incoming the campaign took in 2015 and 2016,” he told me. “David Brock”—the Media Matters founder and attack dog for Clinton—“and his super PAC were working night and day to feed negative stories into the media on a consistent basis. So yes, we are prepared this time, but I sort of reject the premise that there was not any scrutiny last time.”
Clinton, at least publicly, did limit most of her attacks to policy, like highlighting some of Sanders’ previous statements and votes on gun issues. Or she would portray Bernie as living in a fantasy world, without the sort of practical ideas that could make their way into law. Some of the more damning episodes from Sanders’ more radical or, really, strange past—such as a 1972 stream-of-consciousness article, in which he wrote about a woman who “fantasizes being raped by 3 men simultaneously”—were out there but never got, say, tens of millions of dollars in attack ads placed behind them. Now, if Sanders is going to become president, he will eventually be running against noted ethical campaigner Donald Trump.
The campaign says it knows this and is trying to build a much fuller team that can run conventional media strategies, including fielding the barrage of attacks that are sure to come. Bernie Sanders, however, does not always embrace conventional strategies devised by his advisers.
The morning before Sanders announced his second bid for the presidency, his media consultants at Devine Mulvey Longabaugh got a call from staffers in Vermont. The firm had been laying the strategic groundwork for Sanders’ second campaign launch for months, but now they were learning that the senator didn’t like the way he looked in the direct-to-camera announcement video that DML had shot in D.C. a few days earlier. Bernie, the staffers said, would be shooting another one in Vermont, in half an hour. They sent along images of various background options and asked which ones DML liked best. The resulting, nearly 11-minute monologue of a launch video, with its slapped-together cable-news vibe, was released the next morning.
A week later, DML, which had been with Sanders since the very beginning of his first campaign, quit, citing “creative differences.”
The launch video headache, according to those familiar, was hardly the only creative butting of heads. Sanders does not easily take advice, and persuading him to try something different can be a titanic struggle. That’s an attribute that differentiates him from the many flip-flopping, overmanaged politicians, and ignoring the political professionals’ advice was almost the only way to try something so crazy as toppling Hillary Clinton in 2016. But Sanders isn’t an insurgent this time.
The statement announcing the separation was signed by each of the three partners at DML: Devine, Mulvey, and Longabaugh, all top advisers to Sanders’ 2016 run. But since then, only the M and L had been functionally working with the senator. Devine and Sanders never really reconciled after the 2016 campaign.
“I certainly was of the opinion that, you know, he wasn’t really listening to my advice,” Devine said of where they left things in 2016.
According to Devine, one of the earliest disagreements between the two came during the late summer and fall of 2015. Sanders was concerned that Hillary Clinton was putting up television advertisements well before he was. He wanted to get on the air. Devine told him that it wouldn’t make much sense to put ads up without getting some data on which voters to target and with which message. He wanted to conduct polling first. Sanders refused.
It took a significant amount of time and energy to convince Sanders that the consultants weren’t trying to change Sanders’ positions. They weren’t, as another staffer familiar with the matter put it, trying to knock down his proposed minimum wage target from $15 an hour to, say, $12.50, if that’s where the polling sweet spot was, or to change his single-payer health care plan based on focus group results. They were trying to find which of the positions he already held would be most effective to highlight in ads and how best to message the things he believed in.
“He said, ‘Go with your gut, Tad, that’s what I do,’ ” Devine recalls. “And I said, ‘Listen, that’s what I respect about you. I think it’s great that you’re not a politician who’s looking to a poll to decide what position to take on an issue. But my job is different than yours.’ ”
Devine stayed on through the disputes, traveling with Sanders all the way through the California primary in early June. It was after that, though, that they had the disagreement that eventually severed the relationship.
The Sanders campaign, and Sanders himself, knew by about mid-March of 2016 that Clinton likely had an insurmountable delegate lead. Sanders felt it was important, though, that he stay in the race until the end to give everyone a chance to vote. His team was OK with that, especially since Clinton had stayed in through the end of the primary calendar in 2008 despite the delegate hole that Barack Obama had put her in.
After California, though, Devine thought it had been long enough. Clinton was already going to have enough trouble beating Trump in November—he was a “change” candidate; she was not—and Devine wanted Sanders to throw his support to her quickly, giving her the summer to unify the party. Sanders disagreed and, according to Devine, genuinely felt that he needed to work through the party platform process to build a “substantive bridge” between his supporters and Clinton, otherwise they might never get behind her.
“He said, ‘Listen, Tad. You don’t understand what it’s like to stand in front of 20,000 people, and I say [Clinton’s] name, and they’re screaming holy hell, OK?’ ” Devine recalled. “ ‘I mean, there’s no way I can just go out and endorse her, and credibly help those people to come to support her. The only way I can do that is to convince them that this agenda that we talked about throughout the course of the campaign has been adopted in large part by the Democratic Party, and that the next president, even if it’s Hillary Clinton, is going to work on these issues.’ ”
Devine says he did, and still does, respect that view. He just disagreed, feeling that the biggest imperative was for the Clinton campaign to get itself “out of the conflict stage and into the consensus stage.” Devine had worked on Jimmy Carter’s 1980 campaign, when they had to fend off Ted Kennedy through the convention, and Michael Dukakis’ campaign, when they had to do the same with Jesse Jackson. “I saw, when those things don’t end, the consequences that can have on a campaign,” he said. “These were experiences that I had that Bernie Sanders never had.”
Though he respected Sanders’ position, he felt that he wasn’t being listened to, so the two parted ways. Sanders never got back in touch with him about returning for 2020, Devine says. Though Longabaugh and Mulvey stuck around until February of this year, they, too, eventually arrived at the same place Devine had years earlier: They weren’t being listened to, so it was time to move on.
Sanders’ advisers want their candidate to talk about himself more not only because they believe it’s important for voters, in a presidential election, to feel like they know the guy. They also think opening up about a specific era of his life could address one of his campaign’s most glaring shortcomings from 2016: his weak support among black voters. While it is possible to inflate, as some surrogates do, Sanders’ role as a “civil rights leader,” he was an active organizer against racist policies as a student at the University of Chicago and helped merge the college’s chapters of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He organized picketers, participated in sit-ins, and was once charged with resisting arrest while protesting school segregation. This does not make him John Lewis. It is, however, a useful counter to the widely voiced criticism that he’s narrowly focused on economic issues and views racial justice issues as secondary.
But when an old photo of him resisting arrest surfaced in early 2016, he didn’t want to use it, multiple sources said.
“He didn’t want that out there in the world,” one former campaign staffer told me. “It took a long time for folks to convince him that that would be a good thing.”
Sanders felt that the photo “didn’t speak to his policies and his actions as an administrator or a legislator,” the staffer said. “I think he’s also kind of reticent to exploit things that are personal for political gain.”
This is the prevailing explanation for Sanders’ reticence to open up, even when it could really help his campaign: that he despises the kind of politics that revolves around “exploiting” who you are, where you’ve been, and what your personality is, rather than what your ideas are.
“He believes that politics should be about ideas and platforms, rather than trading on relatability,” California Rep. Ro Khanna, one of Sanders’ three campaign co-chairs, told me. “Someone can be very charming and connect by talking about their favorite restaurants or their hobbies, but still not have the right platform … and I think he thinks that’s not a serious politics.”
Khanna has urged Sanders “many times” to speak more about himself and believes there’s one aspect of his biography in particular that doesn’t get enough play: Despite Sanders’ depiction as just another straight white man running in an excitingly diverse field, he would make history as the first Jewish president. But when he tries to convince Sanders to make this case, “he says, ‘You do that. You guys do that,’ ” referring to his surrogates.
There are some strategic reasons for Sanders not to want to open up more, in addition to the dignity of an issues-based campaign. Weaver argued that by sticking to issues exclusively, Sanders gives himself more of a mandate to enact those issues if he’s elected, since it wouldn’t have been a personality contest. OK, sure. There could also be a Pandora’s box effect to opening up his past: If Sanders infuses his personal story into his messaging, his competitors will feel more empowered to infuse Sanders’ personal story—certain troubling magazine articles from the ’70s, the (now-dropped) investigation into Jane Sanders’ tenure as a Vermont college president—into their messaging, too. (At the moment, he seems very disinterested in, and characteristically prickly about, disclosing one particular aspect of his personal life: his tax returns.)
Khanna offered one other explanation for Sanders’ reticence that I hadn’t considered before and that no one else had floated. “He’s had a very tough life,” Khanna said, based on the few personal conversations he’s had with the senator. His mother died young; much of his father’s family, as he’s said from time to time, was “wiped out” in the Holocaust. He didn’t have much growing up.
“He had a very tough thing with his parents, and his childhood. It may be a painful part of his life.”
Every last person in the Sanders orbit I spoke to—even if they shared a gripe about how Sanders doesn’t listen to their advice on political outreach, talking about himself, polling, playing up a killer photograph of a college arrest, dropping out for the good of the party, attacking an opponent, shooting a professional-looking launch video, trying to crack a few jokes once in a while, or whatever else they believe could help him unlock new masteries of political dexterity—would all quickly hedge their gripe with the same caveat: Of course, the reason he’s so popular, and the reason I was attracted to him in the first place, is that he ignores people like me. Most of them think he needs to evolve to win, but the weight you give their opinions depends a whole lot on what you think of political advisers and strategy to begin with.
After releasing his 11-minute announcement video, Sanders agreed—not without putting up a bit of a fight and not without delays—to do a more formal, two-step launch that was originally Mark Longabaugh’s brainchild. He would give a biographical speech about his youth in Brooklyn and then a speech focusing on race in Chicago, where he had protested as a student. The speeches were well received.
By the time I saw Sanders at rallies in California toward the end of March, though, the biographical sections of his stump speech had been trimmed to a perfunctory paragraph or two, and he was back in his comfort zone: shouting his platform, citing statistic after statistic about CEO pay, income disparity, wealth concentration, the prison population. His first rally in California, in San Diego, came the same day that special counsel Robert Mueller submitted his report to the attorney general. Sanders didn’t have a lot to say about the investigation—“I don’t know what’s in the report, nobody does”—but he did enjoy sharing the statistic that Mueller had indicted 34 individuals and six Trump campaign officials. Even the personal detail that Sanders was most willing to share throughout the weekend campaign stretch was a statistic: that he has four children and seven grandchildren.
And you know who was enjoying that litany of statistics? The 6,000-person crowd in San Diego and the 12,000 attendees the next day, in Los Angeles, crammed into Grand Park, filling up the allotted space or watching from across the streets, shoulder-to-shoulder, outside City Hall. Bernie Sanders doesn’t have too many gears, but he knows how to use the ones that he has. It’s not impossible that his advisers, and the political class in general, have an inflated sense of their own expertise and that his gut is enough to get him elected. Consider, after all, the winner of the last presidential election.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus