Within moments of Bernie Sanders’ announcement he was running for president again in 2020, many stepped forward to pour cold water on his chances. He’s too radical, say some. Democrats’ leftward shift means he’s no longer radical enough, say others. He’s too ancient, says yet another group.
Not so fast. Early fundraising totals reveal a solid number of Sanders’ 2016 supporters remain committed where it matters - the wallet. According to his campaign, the Sanders campaign raised about $5.9 million from 225,000 potential voters within 24 hours of his announcement and surpassed $6 million a few hours after that. That blew past the totals for Sens. Elizabeth Warren (almost $300,000 on her first day), Kamala Harris ($1.5 million in the first 24 hours) and Amy Klobuchar ($1 million in the first 48 hours).
Yes, Warren launched her campaign on New Year’s Eve, a day many Americans are not web surfing. And yes, none of the three ran for president in 2016, and thus their name recognition and their initial hauls were bound to be lower. But regardless, in a society where we judge people by their money, the eye-popping totals suggest that Sanders will likely play a large role in a the 2020 Democratic primaries - and possibly beyond.
All this shouldn’t come as a surprise, yet it often seems to, at least in the Acela corridor. In a world where income inequality continues to soar, common sense says Sanders’ populist message appeals to many. Millions of Americans support Sanders’ agenda, or at least parts of it. Poll after poll after poll shows solid majorities of all ages say they want to see “Medicare-for-all,” a $15-an-hour minimum wage and higher taxes on the wealthiest among us.
But there is something else, too. Sanders, 77 - either deliberately or accidentally - has figured out a way to make his relatively advanced age work in his favor. In American society, we often brush off the elderly. But there remains a long-established trope, something I’ll dub the “Golden Girls” appeal for the 1980s-1990s hit television show. These people are who they are, and they remain committed to their passions. They don’t talk down to the young people, but neither do they scold, or blame them for their woes. At the same time, they don’t sugarcoat their critiques. They don’t pretend to share their taste in music, but they share something more important - they share their idealism and their belief that we don’t need to settle for realism, or second best. They are, you might say, brass-tack dreamers.
Sanders, who, in an age of polished video, often turns up looking as if he forgot to brush his hair, makes zero effort to modulate his distinct New York honk despite decades of living in Vermont, and released a campaign commercial in 2016 featuring the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel, fits this profile perfectly. He tells a generation of Americans indebted by student loans that college tuition can once again be an inconsequential expense. It wouldn’t take a “magic genie,” as Klobuchar claimed Monday, just a society willing to support it. And he doesn’t just say he would like to see a $15 minimum wage. He all but shamed Amazon into raising its minimum hourly pay last year to $15 an hour, after he debuted legislation named in honor of Jeff Bezos, that would have required large companies to pay the government back if their employees still need government benefits to get by. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
None of this is to say Sanders is home free. He’s not, and not just because a lot can happen between now and next year. Older voters could balk at Sanders’ uncompromising progressive policies. The larger and more progressive slate of candidates this year may carve up his support. For all that people like elderly truth-tellers, Sanders’ more than occasional obliviousness to how progressives think about gender and race can grate. Others remain angry about how his last presidential campaign handled allegations of sexual harassment by staffers or point to allegations of yelling at his own workers. He struggled with many black voters in 2016. More than a few people remain angry at him for his challenge to Hillary Clinton, and it’s quite possible the avid middle-age female volunteers of the resistance to Trump will give their energies to another. Sanders might not even have the Democratic elderly truth-teller lane to himself - former Vice President Joe Biden could decide to run. Warren could also take the role, though it remains harder for her, thanks to sexism, to fill that role.
But Sanders comes with the formidable muscle. He has passionate supporters who remain committed, years of experience in grassroots organizing, and a political environment that has only become friendlier to his views since the last time he ran. And no candidate who can raise so much so quickly from so many small donors can be dismissed so cavalierly and quickly.