The Bernie Faithful Wait For A 2020 Signal

Part of Bernie Sanders' surprise success in 2016 was that he didn’t do politics like other people. Now he’s a frontrunner for president. Does he wing it all over again, or start building the kind of campaign operation he never embraced the first time?

It was December 2013, three years before the election, 15 months before the public launch, when Hillary Clinton and a small, secret group of advisers first started working through plans for a presidential campaign with a rough two-page outline, prepared by veteran strategist David Plouffe, for what internally became known as the “roadmap.”

The document laid out 14 “key areas” that would have to be in place before Clinton even made a final decision to run: the message (“2014 should be used to answer: ‘Why me?’”), the organizing model (“Kerry ’04?” “Obama ’08?”), the primary strategy (“at least three strategic approaches”), and the crucial primary calendar (“possible adjustments to help in the primary and cause mischief on the other side?”). Two months later, aides had revised the roadmap outline into the “roadmap work plan,” a detailed table tracking projects and “next steps.” By spring 2014, they were commissioning research and assessing possible changes to the primary calendar that might ease Clinton’s path.

The roadmap, among dozens of early planning documents made public after Russian hackers targeted Democrats, details the extent to which building a presidential campaign can begin as much with the question of whether a candidate wants to run, and why, as with the work they must do in order to run, let alone run and win.

The same early juncture in the election cycle is now facing Clinton's primary challenger, Bernie Sanders, a candidate who in 2015 launched his campaign in the span of a couple months and is considered a frontrunner in the next election. The 75-year-old Vermont senator, current and former aides said in recent interviews, has the chance to build a formidable organization with the kind of infrastructure his first campaign lacked.

“When you look at the rest of the prospective field, no one comes to the table with the assets that Bernie has,” said Mark Longabaugh, a longtime Democratic strategist who served as a top official on the Sanders campaign. “Bernie's incredible hold on 40 to 45% of the Democratic Party is a substantial asset. How will anyone else assemble 50% plus one?”

Sanders, who is up for reelection in Vermont next year, has not yet taken any logistical steps toward a campaign in 2020, nor has he asked others to do so, advisers said.

Earlier this month, he returned to the key caucus state of Iowa for the first time since the election to speak to a 1,100 progressive activists in Des Moines. At a daylong conference, Revolution Iowa, organizers and volunteers from the 2016 campaign reunited over boxes lunches and at workshops like “The Fight for Our Lives: Medicare for All!” Sanders is scheduled to make a second trip to the state in late August to promote his new book.

Around Sanders, former aides and advisers point to other signs of activity.

On the Democratic National Committee’s Unity Commission, a group created by the Sanders and Clinton campaigns to review the fairness of the nominating process, the senator’s allies, led by former campaign manager Jeff Weaver, have eyed changes to superdelegates, open primaries, and the voting calendar that could benefit Sanders. (Weaver, disputing that idea, said the commission is focused on changes that would help non-leading, lesser-known candidates “get a fair hearing and maybe win.” Sanders, he noted, “would enter as a leading candidate, if not the frontrunner.”)

Outside Washington, Sanders' old Iowa state director, Robert Becker, has moved back to Des Moines full-time. The news “raised eyebrows” across the Sanders universe, Becker said. At the moment, he is working with two Iowa Democrats considering runs for local and statewide office, but Becker, like others, is open about his hope for another run.

“Many of us are out here waiting for a signal from him,” said Longabaugh, who, along with Tad Devine, another top adviser, put together the early blueprint for the Sanders campaign in spring 2015. “My sense is that's sort of where Sanders Nation is.”

Sanders unquestionably built his “political revolution” on the strength of his message, not the kind of calculated mechanics that laid the foundation for the Clinton operation in Brooklyn. Still, some backers said, the campaign also suffered from basic structural and tactical work that the senator not only came late to, but at points actively resisted.

The nuts-and-bolts planning for a Sanders campaign began in March 2015, shortly before his April 30 announcement. In 2014, the liberal radio host Bill Press had hosted Sanders at his Washington home to talk over the decision to run with Senate staffers, senior Democrats, and strategists, along with “wise guys and gals who pontificated a lot,” recalled Longabaugh. “Helpful for Bernie and [his wife] Jane to hear — but it was not planning.”

Where some candidates operate as natural tacticians in their own right, the two-term senator did not revel in the strategy or the mechanics of the election process itself.

“I just don’t think that’s his game,” said former campaign official Michael Ceraso.

Less than four months into the race, in August 2015, senior advisers sat down with Sanders and his wife in Burlington to address the issue in blunt terms: If they wanted to compete, they needed a more serious operation — a campaign with proper infrastructure and a more robust travel schedule, even if it meant missing votes in the Senate, they told him, according to a person briefed on the conversation at the time. In short, there were basic realities about running for president that would have to be accepted.

Even after the meeting, billed publicly by advisers as “phase two” of the campaign, Sanders struggled with that adjustment. He had to be convinced that TV ads were not just effective but necessary, and that using a pollster did not mean putting a finger to the wind. He never hired a political director. He didn't see the need for middle management. Basic functions like a regional press operation weren't fully in place until the primaries had started. Structurally, they never caught up to Clinton. (One former aide described the problem as the ultimate double-edged sword: “The reason that he is a compelling candidate is the same reason he can’t be elected president.”)

For now, Sanders is reluctant to engage on the subject of what's next.

On his recent trip to Iowa, when shouts of "2020" rang out from the crowd, Sanders, standing onstage or moving down the ropeline, remained expressionless. The topic can be a source of irritation for the former candidate, another distraction from the message.

The 2020 speculation adds to a somewhat disjointed political moment for Sanders: He is navigating new terrain under President Trump, now as a key player in defending the Affordable Care Act even as he amplifies activists’ calls for a single-payer system; he is facing a federal investigation into his wife’s handling of bank loans for the shuttered Burlington College; and the group that was meant to be the vessel for his political movement, Our Revolution, has a struggled to rack up significant electoral wins.

Weaver, the former campaign manager and a longtime adviser who remains closer to Sanders than most, stepped down as the head of Our Revolution on July 15 and is now serving as the central spokesman for all matters related to the FBI inquiry, which he dismisses as a “media feeding frenzy.” (For some, the move signaled a certain level of concern, recalling the brief but intense period in late 2015 when Weaver took over communications in the aftermath of a data breach scandal.)

If Sanders decides to run a second time, he would enter the Democratic field with a national committed following seen with few other politicians.

Sanders, it often seems, exists both among the “brothers and sisters” of his movement — and from the distant remove of a celebrity with an enormous and awestruck following. (This spring, taking the stage at a rally in Las Vegas, he approached the lectern and, in one swift movement, removed his dark blue blazer, handed it to a woman seated on the stage behind him, and turned back to the mic, leaving the woman, blazer in hand and mouth agape, resisting a staffer’s reach when he tried to retrieve the jacket.)

Even as he’s become a new source of influence among the party’s elite, carving out a spot on Senate leadership and traveling via private jet on a DNC-sponsored “unity” tour earlier this year, his standing as an antiestablishment figure remains unquestioned.

Josh Orton, a longtime progressive strategist, described the dynamic like this: If Barack Obama was like a “rock star” who people “followed” because they saw him as a “singular leader,” Sanders is more like “a Yoda who people bond with because of his actual policies and the fact that he acknowledges that the political system is corrupt.”

Because of that foundation, said Becker, the Iowa state director, “what we've built is growing exponentially.”

He pointed to people like Kate Revaux, a young Johnson County native who had never been involved in politics before becoming a field organizer for Sanders in Iowa City, and is now a sitting member of the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee.

“It didn’t end,” said Becker. “It was an awakening.”

Still, some aides hope that at some point — if not as early as Clinton in 2013 and 2014 — the attention of Sanders and those closest to him will shift to questions about how he could best prepare for a second campaign and deal with the problems that set him back in 2016 and would almost certainly pose the same challenges again.

Most former aides cited a sustained struggle by the campaign to attract black voters and older voters. And related to that is another potential problem: the primary calendar.

The schedule was “unquestionably” one of the biggest structural hurdles, a former official said. States like Michigan and Wisconsin delivered victories for Sanders that came late in the spring, following a string of Republican states where Clinton dominated with minority voters. In spring 2014, Clinton aides outlined ideas for changes to the calendar (one point: “Keeping the red states early makes sense if she has a primary”), though it’s not clear if she played a role in trying to facilitate, or prevent, changes in the schedule.

Sanders could take up his own calendar effort, but it seems unlikely for a candidate recognized by his resistance to internal party mechanics and rigged systems.

Those in the Sanders orbit predict that, for better or worse, if there is a second presidential campaign, it will more likely than not look a lot like the first.

As one put it, “Things don’t change in Bernieworld.” ●

Skip to footer