BURLINGTON, Vt. – Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont still flies coach to his campaign events, sometimes taking the middle seat. He has not run any commercials, instead saving his money for a media blitz this winter in Iowa, New Hampshire and the Super Tuesday states. His aides are only now preparing to conduct polls.
And rather than benefit from million-dollar contributions through a super PAC, Sanders — who has called such fundraising groups corrupt — has amassed 1 million online donations over the past five months, faster than Barack Obama did in his first, digitally groundbreaking, campaign for president.
Sanders reached a turning point Wednesday, when his campaign said that it had raised about $26 million since July — more than Obama took in for the same period in 2007 — and that it had more than $26 million in cash.
Sanders was initially dismissed by insiders as a fringe candidate running only to push Hillary Rodham Clinton to the left. But he has now demonstrated that he has the resources and the supporters to compete for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The great unknown is whether Sanders can turn his ideologically focused, frugally run movement into a muscular national campaign that can expand beyond a fiercely liberal base to attract the broader cross-section of Democrats required to beat Clinton, and possibly Vice President Joe Biden.
While Sanders has 92 paid workers and 24 offices across the battlegrounds of Iowa and New Hampshire, his operation is still that of a man with a message, lacking the network of political allies across the country and in Congress who can help him build organizations that win elections.
“Bernie has done very, very well without having to spend much money at all, relative to Hillary,” said David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist who was a top adviser on Obama’s campaigns. “His campaign recognizes, rightly, that you have to navigate through the early contests and then, to win on Super Tuesday, you have to spend a boatload. They’ve now proven they’re capable of doing that.”
Clinton still holds important advantages over Sanders: She is better positioned financially thanks to her super PAC — though she only narrowly outraised him since July 1, taking in $28 million; she has more support among Democratic Party leaders; and she also has backing among minorities, who can be decisive in some states.
Yet Clinton has struggled to put the controversy about her State Department e-mail practices behind her, and her poll numbers have been sliding in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“With our latest fundraising numbers, we now know we’ll have the resources to compete everywhere,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager. “We have the resources, and can raise the resources, to go all the way to the convention.”
Sanders now has 650,000 donors, most of whom have not reached the maximum contribution of $2,700.
Inside the campaign offices here, though, the fundraising results had workers positively giddy at the possibility that, true to Sanders’ ideals, his campaign could thrive on a powerful message spread through social media and by word of mouth.
“Bernie is trying to create a new way of doing politics in America. If enough people support that, we will win,” Weaver said.