In an email sent to DSA members after Sanders launched his bid for president Tuesday, DSA leadership alerted its chapters that it would soon begin polling membership on whether or not they’d support backing Sanders and outlined its potential strategy moving forward.
“DSA could play an important role in supporting Sanders — both by helping Sanders win the Democratic Party primary and go on to defeat Trump in the general election, and by growing DSA as a serious, independent, socialist pole in the broader Sanders movement,” the email reads. The organization’s leadership said in the email that they had come to believe that for DSA to play a significant part in the campaign, “DSA must get involved in Sanders work as early as possible.”
Sanders is the only presidential candidate that the group is considering endorsing, despite the large swath of progressives already in the 2020 campaign who support policies backed by DSA.
DSA has already seen big organizational gains from its work for Sanders. In 2014, DSA launched a “Draft Bernie” campaign to convince the senator to run for president before endorsing his campaign and launching an outside effort. “Thanks in part to this campaign, DSA has grown about 11 times over since 2015, from 5,000 members to 55,000,” the organization’s exploratory committee said in a January 2019 report adopted by its national political committee. “DSA will most likely want to endorse Sanders again, were he to run in 2020."
The national campaign, which could launch as early as this spring, would largely focus on promoting the central ideas of Sanders’ platform — Medicare for All, free college, the Green New Deal, and ending cash bail — while supporting the growth of local- and state-level Democratic Socialists for Bernie campaigns and holding town halls, canvassing, and phone banking.
“If we do launch this campaign, it will be movement centered,” Maria Svart, the national director of DSA, told BuzzFeed News this week after Sanders officially announced his presidential run. “Our power comes from an organized working class, and we can express that power in communities. It’s a reflection of a strategy and theory of change. In everything that we do, we center the movement and policies we want to fight for.”
Svart said that because the potential campaign is still in its early stages, DSA hasn’t discussed possible coordination with outside Sanders-aligned groups like Our Revolution.
“We feel that Sanders is the only candidate that has a very good chance of beating Donald Trump, and who is an open democratic socialist in the primary,” Svart said. “Obviously things can change, but right now we’ve adopted the recommendation of the exploratory committee, and we’re only looking at Sanders’ campaign.”
The organization has been actively encouraging its chapters to hold discussions about endorsing Sanders’ campaign, and discussions at one regional conference have already taken place. Within the next two weeks, DSA plans to poll its membership regarding a Sanders endorsement before its national political committee meets to make a final decision by the end of March.
Some chapters, including the one in Seattle, and the Young Democratic Socialists of America have already passed resolutions in support of endorsing Sanders’ campaign.
DSA expects to work independently of Sanders’ campaign if its members decide to endorse him. The efforts would likely include building out college campus groups through YDSA, expanding the Labor for Bernie group through its labor committee, and using its Medicare for All campaign as a base for a national organizing structure, according to the January report.
“In the concrete sense of the nuts and bolts of what a campaign would look like, that means training all of our members and chapters on grassroots organizing and building a network and new generation of democratic socialists with the skills to run a campaign,” Svart said. “We need ordinary people to run ordinary people as candidates in every community in the country.”
DSA has had several big victories over the last year as its membership has grown. The organization’s members in New York City worked to stop Amazon’s move to Queens last week, and two DSA members — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib — were elected to Congress in November.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, who is already set to play a big role in the 2020 Democratic primary, volunteered for Sanders’ 2016 campaign and campaigned with the senator last fall for progressive midterm candidates. She has not endorsed in the race, and Sanders recently told BuzzFeed News the two have not had conversations about an endorsement. A representative for Ocasio-Cortez did not respond to a request for comment when asked how a DSA endorsement decision might affect her own, or how she would vote in the members poll.
If DSA does decide to endorse Sanders, he wouldn’t be the only candidate with outside backing. Another group on the left, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee — which first led an effort to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for the Senate in 2011 — endorsed Warren’s presidential campaign earlier this month. But many of the other new progressive groups are withholding endorsements for now.
Waleed Shahid, communications director for the Justice Democrats organization, which is aligned with Ocasio-Cortez and was founded by former Sanders campaign volunteers, told BuzzFeed News earlier this month that Justice Democrats is “not aligned” with any presidential campaign, and that while the organization might endorse a candidate at some point, it didn’t plan to quickly endorse a Sanders campaign.
Democracy for America — another progressive organization that attempted to draft Warren to run for president for the 2016 race before eventually endorsing Sanders — is also withholding an early endorsement while polling its membership, telling candidates that its endorsement is “up for grabs.”
DSA is confident it can play a meaningful role in the presidential campaign, including if its members decide to endorse Sanders.
“We have shown that it can be done, and we’ve shown that our members have the energy to do it,” Svart said. “Obviously we are operating on a member-based budget, but we’ve shown that we can put the infrastructure together and do the necessary work if our members decide to endorse Sanders.”
“We are inspired and excited that so many are willing to jump right in to support Bernie's vision to fundamentally transform this country,” a spokesperson for the Sanders campaign said when asked about the DSA move. “This campaign is about building a movement, and with the unprecedented grassroots support we’re seeing, not only will we win the Democratic primary and defeat Donald Trump, but we’ll finally enact an agenda that serves all people.”
Additional reporting contributed by Lissandra Villa.
Some DSA chapters have voted on a resolution to endorse Bernie Sanders. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Philadelphia as one of those chapters.