MIAMI — It was after midnight when she finally arrived at the hotel here after a couple of delayed flights. But before heading upstairs to reunite with her husband, who had just won a stunning upset in the Michigan primary, Jane Sanders made her way to a television crew set up for a live shot from the lobby.
With several of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s aides still celebrating at the bar visible in the background, Jane Sanders confidently summed up what had happened.
“What I’ve always known is that the more people see him, the more they get to know him, the more they like him,” the candidate’s wife of 27 years told MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt, adding that the campaign sees several more opportunities to upset Hillary Clinton.
As the stakes have escalated for her husband — with many in the media writing off his chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination — Jane Sanders is stepping out front more and more.
On Friday, she was headed to multiple destinations in Arizona, part of her first out-of-state campaign trip without her husband.
In some ways, the broader role is not terribly surprising. The 74-year-old senator from Vermont has said he considers his wife to be a colleague as well as a spouse. Earlier in his congressional career, she would fill in as press secretary or in other key positions when vacancies emerged in his office. And she is a leader in her own right, having served as president of Burlington College in Vermont.
Yet Jane Sanders’s search to find her place in her husband’s campaign has been as much of a journey as the insurgent White House bid itself.
In the early stages of the race, she was seen but rarely heard. At the start of Bernie Sanders’s often massive campaign rallies, Jane Sanders would walk onto stage with him. She would wave at the audience. He would hug her, sometimes kiss her and then she would step away. He would launch into his hour-long stump speech as she silently sat by.
“It helps to have me with him,” Jane Sanders said in the first of a series of interviews over the summer, explaining the dynamic. “He feels more comfortable and relaxed, and we’re best friends, colleagues, husband and wife, and we really like to spend time together and enjoy new experiences, and this is certainly a new experience.”
For months, she resisted the urging of the candidate’s aides to hit the campaign trail on her own more often. No one suggested that she could compete for attention with a more famous spouse out there this cycle — former president Bill Clinton. But the thinking was that she could draw crowds on her own, helping spread Sanders’s message and humanize him.
Bernie Sanders is beloved by his supporters, but few accuse him of being warm and fuzzy. Jane is quick to offer a hug, talk about grandchildren — anything outside of politics, for that matter — and ask people about their experiences.
Bernie Sanders wears off-the-rack, often rumpled dark suits,but his wife typically sports bright print tops and plenty of reddish-blond hair.
And although she kept a low public profile in the early stages of the campaign, it belied her influence on the candidate at its center.
When he took a walking tour late last year of the Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray had lived, she compiled pages of notes based on what they saw as well as a meeting with black pastors afterward. The discussion between the two that followed informed what Sanders has said on the campaign trail about deaths of African Americans in police custody and other criminal justice matters.
Both members of the couple also credit Jane’s input for an evolution in the senator’s thinking about the legalization of marijuana. Her insights about marijuana not being a “gateway drug” helped lead the candidate to propose removing it from the federal government’s list of dangerous drugs — a step that will make it easier for states to legalize it and, Sanders says, spare millions of Americans the additional hurdle to getting a job that follows a criminal conviction.
Bernie Sanders has hired one of the most experienced Democratic media consultants in the business — Tad Devine, whose résumé includes the campaigns of Walter Mondale, Al Gore and John F. Kerry — but Jane Sanders continues to play a role in crafting the campaign’s television advertising.
“We do not put any TV ads on without Jane seeing it,” Bernie Sanders said in an interview. “So she looks at the ads. She’ll make her comments. She’ll talk to Tad. Tad will change it, because Tad also appreciates her views. . . . She has very good instincts about what makes sense and what does not make sense, and when I’m moving in the wrong direction, or when I’m moving in the right direction. So yeah, I trust her advice very much.”
Bernie Sanders, who is nine years older than his wife, also credits her with helping him keep a pulse on the younger generation, which has proved to be his most loyal constituency in states that have voted.
“She has very good instinctual links to our kids and their friends, more so than I do,” Sanders said. “I would say that her understanding of children has helped me significantly increase my focus on kids in this country and the needs of children.”
Like her husband, Jane Sanders grew up in Brooklyn, though the couple never crossed paths until many years later — and she does not have his heavy accent.
They met at Bernie Sanders’s inauguration as Burlington’s mayor in 1981. She took a job running the city’s youth office, and they started dating.
Jane Sanders said she fell in love first with her husband’s ideas — and then with the rest of the man.
They have four children between them, all from prior relationships, and seven grandchildren. Until the race began, the family convened often at the couple’s home in Burlington, where baseball is a regular pastime in the couple’s spacious back yard.
Jane Sanders continued to be a presence in her husband’s political career following his election to Congress in 1990. She helped with organizing the office, including hiring, when he came to Washington. She filled jobs as needed over the years and helped her husband draft dozens of bills.
After he was elected to the Senate in 2006, she was no longer allowed to serve in her husband’s office because of Senate rules.
By that time, though, she had headed in another direction professionally. In 1996, she was recruited to serve as interim provost of Goddard College, where she had studied and served on the board of directors.
In 2004, she became president of Burlington College. She stepped down in 2011 over what she said was a dispute with the board about the institution’s direction. Her tenure was not without controversy. Soon after Bernie Sanders launched his campaign, news stories surfaced about whether she had made misrepresentations on a loan application for a real-estate purchase for the college. She has dismissed news coverage of the controversy as politically motivated and said it was not a factor into her departure.
When Bernie Sanders first broached the idea of running for president, Jane Sanders was not initially on board.
“First I said, ‘How can you win? We’re from a small state,’ ” she recalled. “I know the issues are important, but isn’t there another way for these issues to be discussed? I kept on saying, ‘Can’t you write a book? Can’t you start an organization? Can’t you do a speaking tour?’ And he kept on saying, ‘Yes, I can do all those things, and it’s not going to matter at all. It’s not going to change the conversation.’ ”
She also wanted to know that he could win.
“It’s not worth taking away the time from our family and the very important work in the Senate unless you can possibly win, unless you have a chance of winning,” Jane Sanders remembers telling her husband.
He started touring the country, often with a single aide to see what kind of response he would get from delivering speeches about the “rigged” economy and disappearing middle class. The reception was good, and the crowds were larger than expected.
What finally sold her on the idea, Jane Sanders said, was a meal at Denny’s. Much of the discussion centered on whether to move forward with a presidential bid.
“I’m not for it, but whatever you decide, I will be behind you 100 percent,” Jane Sanders recalled saying. “‘He was like, ‘If you don’t want me to do it, I won’t do it.’ So it was like a stalemate.”
A disabled veteran visited the table to thank the senator for helping him get his benefits from years ago. The man told Bernie Sanders that he had changed his life and that would do anything to help him if he ran for president.
“I said, ‘I give up. I think you should do it,’ ” Jane Sanders said.
After her husband launched his campaign, Jane Sanders granted only occasional interviews. Now, she actively courts the media.
Since the Iowa caucuses, she has been a near-constant traveling companion to her husband. That includes daily flights on a chartered jet, on which Sanders and his aides sit up front and the traveling press corps occupies the back. About a dozen Secret Service agents sit in between.
The candidate rarely ventures back into the media section, but his wife is a regular visitor. She mostly talks off the record, sometimes asking reporters questions about their kids. She also dishes about the campaign as freely as any veteran strategist.
As the plane headed to Burlington on the eve of Super Tuesday, she agreed to go on the record, acknowledging that the next day presented “a rough map for us.”
Asked this week why she hadn’t been more visible sooner, Jane Sanders offered a polished answer that sounded like something that would come from a press secretary.
Early on, she said, voters were still getting to know her husband.
“I felt they didn’t know Bernie, so I didn’t want to muddle the message by putting myself out there too much,” she said.
A few minutes before an outdoor rally at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Jane Sanders sat in the corner of a tent set up behind a stage erected on the athletic field where a crowd of more than 5,600 people were waiting.
Her task that morning was relatively easy. She would walk out with her husband, smile, wave and then exit the stage. It was the same routine she had executed countless times, but one she says she still relishes.
“I like to go out and see everybody,” Sanders said. “I’m always surprised at how fervent the support is and how hopeful and optimistic the people are. . . . I walk away always feeling we can’t let them down.”