The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Revolution stalled? Bernie Sanders struggles against a double bind.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — For four years, Bernie Sanders has been building a rebellious movement bent on enacting dramatic change in government and becoming bigger and more powerful than anything in politics. “We are about transforming this country!” the self-described democratic socialist roared at a recent rally.

But after a promising start to his second run for president, Sanders is struggling to attract new supporters, and even keep some of the old ones, amid a crowded Democratic field that poses strong threats from the left and right.

Sanders consistently polls second to former vice president Joe Biden, but often in the teens, a precarious spot for someone who is known by virtually all Democratic voters. One of his trademark proposals — Medicare-for-all — has attracted fewer co-sponsors in Congress than two years ago. And although Sanders continues to draw larger crowds than most candidates, they are generally less diverse than the Democratic Party, highlighting one of his key weaknesses.

Asked to assess Sanders’s base of support, Brandon Laws, a New Hampshire alderman who backs the Vermont senator, said: “Probably the opposite of expanding. . . . There are just so many options.” He said he is still confident Sanders will be a finalist.

Presented with the largest and most diverse field in history, some Democrats see a far greater array of visions, voices and options than in 2016, when the primary was in effect a binary choice between Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

His message of left-wing change has clear limits, as reflected in Biden’s rise. And for those who do embrace his revolutionary cause, a messenger such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has been rising in polls, may be fresher and more appealing.

“There are people tired of old white men leading,” said David Wilson Brown, a North Carolina congressional candidate who not only voted for Sanders in 2016, but also felt inspired by him to run for office. Brown is now undecided, saying that “there could be a better way forward.”

At a recent Sanders rally in Charlotte, Brown said Warren is “high up” on his shortlist and expressed misgivings about what he called the “cult of personality” surrounding Sanders.

Then there’s Sanders’s independent, sometimes cantankerous style, which appears to be hurting his cause more now that he faces 22 rivals instead of one and is no longer a novel phenomenon.

Although Sanders has intensified his efforts to appeal to nonwhite voters, he continues to draw mostly white crowds. That prompted concerns during a recent southern swing from some black voters, who question whether he’s doing enough to court their community.

Democrats also grumble that Sanders does little to reach out to local elected leaders, whose cellphones are lighting up with texts, calls and emails from other candidates. “He’s never called me,” said Columbia, S.C., Mayor Stephen Benjamin, who has fielded calls from many of the other candidates. Sanders recently made a brief campaign stop in Columbia.

Sanders’s identification as a democratic socialist has caused further friction at a moment when Republicans are eager to paint Democrats as extreme. And while his views on health care have become more popular, the reaction to some of his other positions, such as advocating voting rights for incarcerated felons, has been less enthusiastic.

A big part of Sanders’s pitch is that he can defeat Trump by wooing away white working-class voters, particularly in the Rust Belt, but some Democrats find that both distasteful and unlikely.

“Let me think of a nice way to put this: I think he’s delusional if he thinks he will get a significant number of Trump supporters to vote for him,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a veteran South Carolina Democratic legislator who recently attended a Sanders event but is neutral on the race.

Sanders, who has lost ground in polls in recent weeks, said he is confident in his message, a refrain echoed by his top campaign officials, who say they can convince voters that Sanders fights for change differently from anyone else.

“I am feeling very confident that our message of economic justice, of addressing the incredible issues of poverty that we’re seeing today . . . that is going to resonate, and will resonate, with the American people,” Sanders said in a brief interview.

Sanders’s allies and adversaries acknowledge that his faithful, if limited, following is a major asset, and one that could carry him to victory in a fractured field.

However, Biden’s stronger-than-expected entrance and Warren’s policy-centric campaign, which is beginning to catch on after a sluggish start, have put a squeeze on Sanders.

After a Sanders town hall meeting in Denmark, S.C., focusing on contaminated water, college professor Jayme Bradford-Kinard said that despite supporting him in 2016, she was leaning toward Biden.

“I love the initiatives that he helped to endorse and helped to institute through President Obama,” Bradford-Kinard said.

Polls show Biden with a big lead in South Carolina, a key early state where African American voters such as Bradford-Kinard made up about 60 percent of the 2016 primary electorate and Obama is held in high regard.

Sanders has begun adding more personal touches to his campaign. The normally brusque Vermont senator posed for photos with a line of his supporters in New Hampshire on Monday. And he has scheduled his first in-person fundraiser of the 2020 race, with more possible, according to his campaign manager.

In addition, Sanders is waging an aggressive effort to improve his image among African Americans. In South Carolina, he attended the Taste of Black Columbia, stopping to shake hands, pose for selfies and sample food before delivering an abbreviated campaign speech at the end.

Later, Sanders unveiled a sweeping education platform aimed at tackling racial segregation, banning for-profit charter schools and raising teacher pay. And he visited black residents who had collected samples of opaque water, inspecting a jar by hand and remarking, “You turned on the water and this came out?”

In Alabama, he paid his respects at a memorial for lynching victims and made an emotional visit to a run-down trailer in a rural area where an African American woman showed him the difficult conditions she has endured.

Cobb-Hunter, who was an introductory speaker at Sanders’s education speech in Orangeburg, S.C., said in an interview that Sanders was “beginning to make a slight dent in the African American community.”

But she said Sanders’s mostly white crowds suggest that while his campaign may be hiring local African American staffers, there “appears to be a lot of micromanaging from the national campaign. And you aren’t going to be able to hire black staffers and then not allow them to do their job.”

Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, said that there is “certainly no micromanaging” and that Sanders is empowering state staffers to make key decisions. As for persuading black voters to come out, Shakir said, “I think we’re making progress on that front. Can we continue to do better? Sure.”

Sanders is also trying to draw sharper contrasts with Biden. He notes that he stood against the Iraq War and free-trade deals, while Biden supported them.

Asked whether Biden’s message is resonating in the South, Sanders said, “I have no idea. Nor does anybody else.”

Sanders is taking a far gentler approach toward Warren, with whom he is much more ideologically aligned and whose voters he has a better chance of wooing. Asked whether he has any policy differences with Warren, Sanders said, “I’ll let you ask Senator Warren that question. I’m campaigning on my issues.”

Warren and Sanders have each been teaming up on policies or videos with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose endorsement is among the most coveted in the party.

Warren can appeal to left-leaning voters who believe the country is long overdue for a woman in the White House. At the Charlotte rally, Sandy Bell, an early supporter of Sanders, said he’s still partial to him but has not yet made up his mind.

“We’ve got to have a woman president,” said Bell, who mentioned Warren as well as Sen. Kamala D. Harris and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who he said “stole a piece of my heart.”

Like Sanders, Warren has focused heavily on New Hampshire, which is shaping up as a critical test for both of them next year. Sanders returned this week to the state, where voters and local leaders have developed a reputation for wanting an up-close view of their candidates.

Andru Volinsky, a Sanders delegate in 2016 who sits on the New Hampshire Executive Council, which helps the governor run the state, credited Sanders for having an organization that is “light-years ahead” of 2016. But when it comes to outreach to local leaders, Volinsky said, Sanders has some work to do.

“He could do better,” said Volinsky, a prospective candidate for governor who is neutral on the primary race. “He could be in better, more frequent touch.”

But, Volinsky added, “Bernie is Bernie. He’s not particularly touchy-feely.”