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2020 Is Not 2016: How Bernie Sanders' Second Presidential Bid Would Be Different

Senator Bernie Sanders is relying on his appeal to small donors to win the Democratic Presidential nomination
Charlie Neibergall
/
Associated Press File
If independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, pictured here in 2017, seeks the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, there are ways it'll be a different experience from his bid four years ago.

In late May 2015, standing at the lakefront in Burlington, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders formally announced that he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination. But should Sanders pursue another presidential run during the 2020 campaign, it's likely to look different from that first bid.

During that campaign launch back in 2015, Sanders promised his campaign would mark the beginning of a "political revolution."

"Today, here in our small state — a state that has led this nation in so many ways — I am proud to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America," said Sanders to those gathered.

Jeff Weaver was Sanders' campaign manager, and Weaver said that at the time of the announcement, Sanders was unknown to a national audience.

"He was at 3 percent in the polls, large numbers of people across the country did not even know who he was," Weaver said. "So, you know, it's a very different environment in 2020 than it was in 2015, 2016."

And Weaver said there's no question a 2020 presidential campaign by Sanders will be very different from four years ago.

“I think he has an opportunity to create a much more robust campaign infrastructure than we had last time when we were all running around, trying both do a campaign and build the organization at the same time,”  Weaver said. “So there were a lot of unknowns last time which I think are known this time, and that does create a big difference."     

"I think he has an opportunity to create a much more robust campaign infrastructure than we had last time when we were all running around, trying both do a campaign and build the organization at the same time." — Jeff Weaver, former Sanders campaign manager

There are indications that as many as 20 candidates will seek the Democratic nomination.

But Weaver doesn't view a large field as a problem, and he said Sanders will be credited for bringing a progressive agenda to the Democratic Party.

"He really has an established record, and if he were to run for president and if he were to be successful, you know, people will have confidence that in fact he will follow through on the policy agenda that he has articulated for decades and decades," said Weaver. 

But UVM political science professor Ellen Andersen said Sanders will find 2020 to be a different kind of race because he's no longer the sole progressive voice in the Democratic field.

Andersen said there could be five or six younger candidates who share Sanders' agenda.

"And that means the space that Bernie had to operate, this sort of progressive leftist space, is crowded now — not empty,” Andersen said.

"The space that Bernie had to operate, this sort of progressive leftist space, is crowded now — not empty." — Ellen Andersen, UVM political science professor

Andersen said Sanders' voting record didn't receive a lot of scrutiny in 2016 because the Republicans were happy to have him criticize Hillary Clinton, and the Clinton campaign didn't want to alienate Sanders' supporters.

She predicts things will be very different this time if Sanders runs.

"One of the things that happened is that Bernie got a pass on a lot of things when he was running against Hillary Clinton — he got a free ride ... If he runs again he's not going to be free from that," Andersen said.

More from VPR — Sanders Delegates From 2016 Want Another Shot At White House In 2020 [Dec. 24, 2018]

Middlebury College political science professor Matt Dickinson said Sanders' strong showing in the early polls is both good and bad for the senator.

On the plus side, Dickinson said the Sanders campaign learned a lot about presidential politics four years ago.

"They have a much better idea of how the sequence of caucuses and primaries work, the importance of ... early money — all the things that he, frankly, has acknowledged surprised him that first time around,” Dickinson said. “There were just things that they weren't really prepared to do.”

"He will, like it or not, not be able to hide behind the outsider status anymore. He is going to be one of the front-runners, and he's going to have the defend his record in a way that he did not in 2016." — Matt Dickinson, Middlebury College political science professor

But Dickinson said there's also a downside for Sanders to be considered one of the front-runners in this race.

"When you are the front-runner, you have a target on your back, a bullseye. And he will, like it or not, not be able to hide behind the outsider status anymore,” said Dickinson. “He is going to be one of the front-runners, and he's going to have the defend his record in a way that he did not in 2016."

Norwich University political science professor Ted Kohn noted that Sanders campaigned for a number of candidates who were successful in the 2018 elections, and that this gives him a base of support he didn't have in 2016.

"I think Bernie Sanders is positioning himself absolutely as the leader of at least the anti-Trump forces and the anti-Trump resistance," Kohn said. "And I think that's one of the big takeaways of the 2018 midterms."

But Kohn wonders if this new wave of younger and more diverse Democrats will see Sanders as the future face of their party.

"At the same time he's not an outsider anymore, he's not an insurgent any more,” said Kohn. “He'll be 79 years old in November of 2020, and isn't this something that's already been identified as being a problem inside the Democratic Party?"  

"He's not an outsider anymore, he's not an insurgent anymore. He'll be 79 years old in November of 2020, and isn't this something that's already been identified as being a problem inside the Democratic Party?" — Ted Kohn, Norwich University political science professor

Recently, a group of former Sanders campaign workers released a letter alleging complaints about sexual harassment against women during the 2016 campaign weren't taken seriously. The letter also charged that some women were treated unfairly in terms of their responsibilities and their salaries.

When questioned on CNN about the allegations, Sanders responded: "I certainly apologize to any woman who felt that she was not treated appropriately, and, of course, if I run we will do better next time."

Sanders was also asked on CNN if he personally knew about these allegations during the campaign.

"I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case," he responded.  

More from NPR — "Bernie Sanders Responds To Allegations Of Sexism, Harassment By Aides During 2016 Race" [Jan. 3]

Middlebury professor Dickinson said Sanders' answer struck many political observers as dismissive. He says this is an issue that Sanders will have to address in a comprehensive way if he decides to run.

"Just saying, you know, 'This campaign was large and it grew out faster that I can control' is not really a strong selling point,” Dickinson said. “So he has to confess in a way that appeals, or at least makes the case, that he recognizes the enormity of this problem and its significance to a lot of voters in a 'MeToo' generation." 

And Norwich professor Kohn said Sanders' poor handling of this issue could hurt him with a number of voters, making Sanders seem “out of touch not only with the running of his campaign — you know, what happened to 'the buck stops here'? — but I think it also has a greater danger of making him look out of touch with the larger social movement that's happening now."

There's speculation if Sanders will run — so what will be the deciding factor? Former campaign manager Weaver thinks the answer is pretty simple.

"He very much wants to see Trump defeated and Trumpism defeated, and, you know, if he genuinely believed that he was not the best person to take on Trump and didn't have the best chance to win in 2020, then ... as he has said, he would not run," Weaver said.   

In the mean time, the Democratic race is already underway: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just returned from a campaign trip to Iowa and former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to announce his intentions in the next two weeks.

It’s likely that Sanders will make his decision by the end of next month.

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