Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders told Yahoo and ABC News that he would have "damn good platform" to run for president in 2016 and criticized the idea of "anoint[ing]" Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee. Given Sanders' comments, we decided to re-post our piece from a few months back looking at exactly what kind of campaign the Socialist Senator from Vermont would run.
If Hillary Rodham Clinton or Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz admitted they were seriously considering starting a presidential campaign, it's hard to overstate how much of a media response that would provoke. When Bernie Sanders announces that he's been thinking about 2016, the same hysteria doesn't hold.
The senator from Vermont isn't surprised. Although reporters have always been enamored of his hair -- which starts to resemble Charlton Heston parting a sea when Sanders begins passionately speaking about income inequality or Social Security -- and his gruff unwillingness to tell anecdotes lest you write about his personality rather than his policies, his political ambitions are rarely taken seriously.
With presidential candidates now relying on raising millions from small donors and big donors — besides having one, two or three outside groups raising millions on the side — a candidate who has made fighting big donors and outside groups part of his platform seems to have pre-written his campaign's death knell. Sanders has never accepted corporate PAC money, and the average donation to his campaign during the first quarter of 2014 was $28.95.
That doesn't seem to bother Sanders. He's currently gaming out whether he has enough supporters to field a Dumbledorian grass-roots army big enough to buoy a presidential bid. "In order for someone like me to be a viable candidate," he says, "you need to have a big grass-roots following. A large, large number of people who can knock on doors. That's what I've been doing for a long time. It's worked pretty well for me so far."
Sanders' history is a mathematical proof of how improbable campaigns can blossom into an improbable career with even more improbable longevity. When he ran in the 1981 mayoral election in Burlington, Vt., a fair number of people laughed at the idea of a 39-year-old political novice — who happened to be a self-described Democratic socialist — running against a five-term incumbent who didn't even bother campaigning. Sanders had run a few unsuccessful campaigns in the ’70s: twice for the Senate and twice for governor.
He won the mayoral election by 10 votes. "Not exactly a landslide," as Sanders put it at the time.
The state Democratic chair said after his victory — made possible by organizing a coalition of students, college professors and elderly and low-income residents — ''I think everyone's scared right now." Six months into his term, Sanders received a parking ticket for having his car in the mayor's parking spot. As the 1983 mayoral election approached, many assumed Sanders was on his way out. A city alderman said, ''I don't know what happened to the Democrats in the last election. I can only tell you that it won't happen in the next election.''
Turnout doubled, and Sanders won again. By the time he ran for the U.S. House in 1988, nearly everyone in the state referred to the politician by his first name. As Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) told Mark Leibovich in 2007, "His bumper stickers just say, ‘Bernie.' You have to reach a certain exulted status in politics to be referred to only by your first name.”
He didn't win in 1988, but he came close, and there was no doubt people were paying attention. ''There were 25 debates, and Bernie is the best debater in the state. Bernie makes sense at the top of his lungs, and not many people can do that.'' When he ran for the House again in 1990, he did win, and became the first independent elected to the House in 40 years.
In 2006, he ran for the Senate, and decisively beat a Republican businessman who outspent him by about $1 million. He won reelection in 2012 with 71 percent of the vote.
"If you look at his financial reports, they are very different from just about any Senate candidate," says Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College. "They are mostly in $25, $50, $100 increments. Not many four figure donations." If Sanders decides to run in 2016, Davis says, "I wouldn't be surprised if he raised three times as much. At least $20 million."
And, regardless of the fact that many people in politics and the media don't take his presidential ambitions seriously, he definitely has some people excited. As Wonkblog pointed out Monday, Sanders beats every other politician in Congress when it comes to being talked about on Facebook.
Sanders has improbable victories down to a science. However, the art of electioneering — and, in particular- money raising — has transmogrified since Sanders's early days.
First, Barack Obama decided not to take public financing for the 2008 general presidential election.
Then there were the Citizens United and Speechnow.org v. FEC decisions in 2010. In 2011, the House voted along party lines to abolish the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and the Presidential Primary Matching Payment Account — as well as the Election Assistance Commission — and transfer the money to the U.S. Treasury to decrease the deficit. The Senate has not embraced any similar legislation.
In the 2012 presidential election, neither candidate took public financing. More than $7 billion was spent during the 2012 election cycle. Last month, the Supreme Court decided to relax campaign finance regulations even more in McCutcheon v. FEC.
Organizing a coalition of students, college professors and elderly and low-income residents sure sounds nice, but it doesn't pack quite the same punch as a few million bucks from a super donor, money that Sanders would flinch from like a vampire from garlic if it were ever offered. "Is this grass-roots support there for me?" Sanders says. "That's the question I need to ask myself. I don't know that it is. It's going to be hard."
For any candidate trying to wage a successful political campaign without taking outside money or public financing, future elections are going to be hard.
The maximum amount of money available for presidential candidates who take public financing — it would be around $54.7 million for a primary and $91 million for the general election in 2016 — is about one-tenth of what candidates will need in the next presidential election, according to Common Cause President Miles Rapoport. "It has been rendered impossible for candidates on the left or the right to succeed without immense financial backing," he said.
Sanders realizes the reality of the playing field, too. Regarding outside groups, Sanders spokesperson Michael Briggs writes in an e-mail, "at a time when billionaires are spending huge sums to support right-wing extremists he believes that – until we get real campaign reform – no candidate should unilaterally disarm."
Rejecting outside money is entirely not without precedent.
In the 2012 U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren signed a "People's Pledge" that forced them to make charitable contributions every time an outside group spent on their behalf. Television ads purchased by super PACs basically disappeared from the race.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio likely could not have beat his fellow Democratic candidates if the city did not have a robust public-financing system.
Every year, however, the infrastructure that governs campaign spending grows and gets smarter, making it harder for these outliers to exist.
Brown bragged about the People's Pledge right up until he entered the 2014 Senate race in New Hampshire. Now, he signals that he has no intention of making a repeat performance by discouraging outside groups. Americans for Prosperity has spent more than $1.8 million on ads in New Hampshire already this year.
It doesn't look like Congress is going to seriously consider reforming public financing or campaign finance in the near future either. As then-Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) told the Center for Responsive Politics in 2011, "I think all of us know that this Congress isn't going to be able to fix the system in such a toxic and ideological atmosphere. We're at a real stalemate. I don't think things will change until the public really demands it and makes money in politics a top of the agenda priority." Politics don't seem to have changed much in the three years since, even as the barriers to running a Bernie Sanders type campaign have grown.
These perhaps insurmountable barriers are unlikely to stop Sanders, says Davis. "There are other reasons to run for president besides winning," he said. Davis thinks Sanders "is definitely going to run, and that he's more likely to run as a Democrat than as an Independent."
Added Davis: "He thinks there are issues that are being ignored by Democrats. In particular, Davis thinks Sanders would like to push Hillary Clinton to the left if she decides to run. "If he gets into the Democratic debates, that is the perfect platform to talk about these issues."
Campaign finance is definitely one of "these issues" for Sanders. The Vermonter is co-sponsoring a constitutional amendment, the Democracy is for People Amendment, that would overturn the Citizens United decision and reform the campaign finance system. It's not getting much play on Capitol Hill, but state legislatures and local governments around the country have been passing resolutions to encourage Congress to take action. House Democrats, included Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), proposed the Government By the People Act in February, which would reform the federal public financing system.
Common Cause also points to efforts being made to reform campaign finance at the state level, where most election administration takes place. Rapoport says Connecticut, Maine and Arizona have campaign finance systems worth emulating.
Talking about outside spending has been one of Sanders's key points as he tours the country testing the presidential waters. He gave a speech in New Hampshire earlier this month, and campaign finance, health care and income inequality were among the many subjects discussed.
In a speech at North Carolina State last weekend, he discussed how Citizens United had changed the electoral process — with requisite shoutouts to the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. According to Sanders, the reception he's received during his speaking tour has been "pretty good — more than you'd figure from listening to the political establishment and media."
Sanders often mentions how the media could be as big a barrier to his hypothetical presidential campaign as outside money. "The corporate media is not going to be interested in a Sanders campaign," he says. "My life in politics has always focused on putting together coalitions of people — working families, minorities — bringing together people who care about the same issues."
Davis agrees. "He needs more national reporters covering him if this is going to work." The fact that his campaign would be a powerful anecdote in itself for for how campaign finance has changed electoral politics might get people to pay attention, which is probably what Sanders was hoping for in the first place.