The Vermont senator, initially dismissed by political insiders as a fringe candidate, has demonstrated he has the resources and the supporters to compete for the Democratic presidential nomination.
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, to the consternation of some Sanders advisers who have hungered for data on his political challenges, such as courting black and Hispanic voters.
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 in the past five months, faster than Barack Obama did in his first, digitally groundbreaking, campaign for president.
Sanders reached a turning point Wednesday night, when his campaign said that it had raised about $26 million since July — more than Obama took in for the comparable period in 2007 — and that it had saved enough since the spring to have more than $26.5 million in cash.
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Sanders, 74, was initially dismissed by political insiders as a fringe candidate running only to push Hillary Rodham Clinton to the left. But he has demonstrated that he has the resources and the supporters, whom he has only begun to tap financially, 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 liberal base to attract the broader cross-section of Democrats required to beat Clinton, and possibly Vice President Joe Biden, in a diverse array of important states.
While Sanders has 92 paid workers and 24 offices across the early battlegrounds of Iowa and New Hampshire, his operation is still at heart that of a man with a message, lacking the network of political allies across the country and in Congress who can help him build get-out-the-vote 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.
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 far more support among Democratic Party leaders whose superdelegate votes can help secure the nomination; and she has backing among minorities, who can be decisive in some states.
Yet Clinton has struggled to put the controversy about her State Department email practices behind her, and her poll numbers have been sliding in Iowa and New Hampshire despite the television advertisements her campaign has run there since August.
Sanders, who has drawn support by electrifying crowds with his demands for single-payer health care, free tuition at public colleges and higher taxes on the rich, has tested the idea that a modern presidential candidate cannot win without relying on attack ads or internal polling. But he and his advisers, armed with more money than they expected, are forming a battle plan beyond their immediate goals of winning Iowa and New Hampshire.
At Sanders’ Burlington headquarters Wednesday, his top advisers met with lieutenants from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — three of the four states with the earliest nominating contests, all in February — to plan the redeployment of dozens of paid staff members. The workers will go to Super Tuesday states that Sanders views as winnable — including Colorado, Massachusetts and Minnesota — and to Southern states where Clinton is expected to perform well, but where close contests could also yield delegates for Sanders.
“With our latest fundraising numbers, we now know we’ll have the resources to compete everywhere, including all the Super Tuesday states and throughout the South, even Arkansas,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager.
Weaver is also working on a first round of television commercials to run before Thanksgiving.
The Sanders campaign had considered running ads over the summer. But the candidate’s robust presence on Facebook, Reddit and other influential websites helped draw support and improve his standing against Clinton, advisers say.
Sanders now has 650,000 donors, most of whom have not reached the maximum contribution of $2,700.
“I give $20 a month on a recurring payment plan to Bernie, and I hope it helps him take on the billionaires,” said Betsy Butterfield Lynch, 75, a Democrat from Massachusetts who dropped by the Sanders headquarters Wednesday to buy Sanders-themed magnets.
Minority votes needed
For Sanders to win the nomination, he would need to add large numbers of black and Hispanic voters to his predominantly white coalition of older voters such as Lynch and young people, liberals and working-class families. Yet his campaign has no polling data to know which parts of his message might help him with minority voters.
Senior adviser Tad Devine, who has been pushing the campaign to conduct its own surveys, said the results would not be used to shape Sanders’ message but rather to gauge the parts of his message that might have the greatest appeal in particular states or with certain groups of voters that he wants to target.
“I don’t see us having a problem with African Americans and Latinos — I would call it a challenge — but polling will help us introduce Bernie to more of these voters in the best possible way,” Devine said.
Sanders has used polling in previous campaigns, yet he abhors the message that doing so sends, Weaver said, that of craven politicians taking their cues from focus groups rather than relying on the authenticity that is Sanders’ chief selling point.
But Paul Maslin, a pollster who worked for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, said Sanders would most likely need to embrace the virtues of polling.
“Now that they have the money to compete, the Sanders team needs to figure out how to exploit his momentum and win over voters who are up for grabs on Super Tuesday and in other states,” Maslin said.
“And polling will also tell them if the damage done to your opponent is supreme enough that she becomes Humpty Dumpty.”