Sen. Bernie Sanders might not be running – yet – but he sure is traveling a lot. And not just to comfortably blue enclaves.
If Sanders makes a second presidential bid in 2020, his path to the White House will be a highly unusual one. That’s not a biographical note. The Vermont independent has spent the 19 months since President Donald Trump’s election bouncing around the country, rallying support against Trump and the Republican Congress, stumping for progressive candidates, promoting a book, and appearing alongside Democratic National Committee leaders on a nationwide “unity tour.”
Since the last ballots were cast in 2016, Sanders has visited some 28 states (not counting his home in Vermont), often headlining multiple events in different cities over the course of just a few hours. He’s made three stops in, yes, Iowa, but also two apiece in Kansas, Kentucky, Florida, Wisconsin and New York, the only one of the bunch won by Hillary Clinton.
This coming week he will drop in (again) on both Texas and Arizona, where he’s first scheduled for an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper at South By Southwest in Austin on Friday before heading down to an event hosted by his political organization, Our Revolution, that night in San Antonio. Sanders hits Lubbock for another Our Revolution rally on Saturday, then skips west Sunday to join Reps. Ruben Gallego and Raúl Grijalva in Phoenix.
By the time he returns back east next week, Sanders will have touched down in six states, five of them carried by Trump, over the course of a little more than two weeks. The whirlwind itinerary suggests Sanders is a man in a hurry. But even if the destination remains uncertain, the message is clear and, he insists, targeted.
“We have put a significant effort into going into states that Trump won,” Sanders said in an interview. “Not exclusively, but most of the states that I’ve visited have been states that Trump won. The reason for that is I think it’s important for people who voted for Trump to understand that many of the promises that he made on health care, on taxes, on many other issues, are promises that he did not keep.”
How that plays with Democratic primary voters probably remains to be seen. The peripatetic not-quite-candidate hasn’t yet managed a stop in South Carolina, an omission that will signal different things to different people.
Sanders, for decades a bit player in the House and Senate who remains a political independent, is now comfortably among the Democratic party’s most popular (if polarizing) figures – and best draws, both on the road and in television studios, where he’s become an unlikely fixture.
Sanders’ travel is emblematic of his odd place in the political firmament. There are other high profile Democrats, many of them ambitious like Sanders, drumming up support (and cash) for their colleagues. Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday night announced she had doled out $5,000 to every state party outpost and three times that to the DNC itself. Former Vice President Joe Biden has kept a busy schedule, while Sens. Kamala Harris, who spent this past weekend in Selma, Alabama, and Cory Booker, who recently campaigned with Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, have also embraced red-state audiences.
But few seem so willing to challenge the pro-Trump narrative in states where the President would be heavily favored to win in 2020. (The rallies, of course, are stuffed with Sanders backers or folks who agree in broad strokes with his politics; the local news coverage they garner provides the more direct connection to Trump voters.)
“Trump’s agenda, whether it is health care, tax reform, net neutrality, whether it is climate change, on all of those issues, Trump is coming out in a very different place than he campaigned on,” Sanders said, channeling the kind of simple (obvious?) message that still requires time to penetrate. Whether that is enough to peel off the President’s stickiest supporters is another question.
And while Sanders clearly hasn’t ditched his criticism of the Democratic Party, he’s become more careful with his words.
Asked if the Democrats voting to advance a new bill to roll back portions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank bank bill were undermining the party’s efforts to appeal to working voters, Sanders parried.
“People can vote anyway they want to vote,” he said, pivoting to party’s evolving politics.
“I can tell you very happily, and I think any objective observer would confirm what I’m saying, is that in the last year and half or so, the Democratic party has moved in a far more progressive direction than they were before I ran for president,” he said, ticking off growing support on Capitol Hill for his single-payer health care plan and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. “Would I like to see the Democratic party move even faster? Absolutely. But I don’t think anybody can deny that we have made real progress in the last year and a half.”
Whether Sanders can emerge from the next year and a half moving at his current pace is another question. It would be a fool’s errand to project what follows. That said, a trip to South Carolina is probably in order.