Eric Davis: Sanders’ campaign put into context
Sen. Bernie Sanders is seriously considering running for president in 2016. In an interview with “The Nation” magazine, Sanders said he will spend a fair amount of time in the coming months exploring a presidential campaign with progressive individuals and organizations around the country.
Sanders is most unlikely to be elected president, and he knows that. What Sanders is pondering is an educational campaign using a presidential candidacy to raise the profile of issues about which he cares deeply, and to call voters’ attention to aspects of the political system and media structures that prevent these issues from becoming higher priorities.
Sanders told “The Nation” that if he runs for president, his campaign would emphasize “the collapse of the middle class, more people living in poverty, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the high cost of education.” He would also talk about the growing disconnect between the political process and important constituencies, especially the white working class.
Sanders argues that white working-class Americans either have given up on politics, or vote against their interests by supporting Republican candidates, for three reasons. First, coverage of politics in the mainstream media is increasingly focused on personalities rather than issues: “Chris Christie’s weight or Hillary’s latest hairdo.” Second, the campaign finance system — both legislation and recent Supreme Court decisions — provides far more opportunities for corporations and the wealthy to influence politics than working-class and middle-class voters. Third, an institution that could counteract these media and campaign finance biases — the Democratic Party — has itself increasingly gravitated toward the interests of corporations, Wall Street and wealthy individuals.
If Sanders were to run for president, he would use some of the same rhetoric that Franklin D. Roosevelt used in the 1930s — attacks on “economic royalists” and the need to “drive the money changers from the temple.” But would Sanders run as a Democrat or as an independent third-party candidate? Sanders told “The Nation” he needs to answer that question if he decides to become a presidential candidate.
I believe that Sanders would be able to accomplish the goals he has set for his campaign more effectively by entering the Democratic primaries and caucuses than by running as an independent. First, because of complex signature-gathering and other requirements, it is very difficult to get on the ballot as an independent in all 50 states. Second, Sanders is most unlikely to come close to the 15 percent in national polls that the Commission on Presidential Debates requires for an independent candidate to be included in the fall broadcast debates. Third, as was the case with Ralph Nader in 2000, an independent candidate can siphon just enough votes away from the Democrat to allow the Republican to win the electoral votes in a few competitive states.
If Sanders were to enter the Democratic primaries and caucuses, he would definitely be included in nationally televised debates leading up to those events. He might also be given a chance to deliver a speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. Debates and speeches would generate attention for the issues Sanders cares about.
In his 2012 Senate campaign, Sanders was able to raise millions of dollars in small donations from all over the country. These donors give Sanders a grassroots network of supporters whom he could call on, especially in low-turnout caucus states. If Hillary Clinton ends up as the Democratic nominee in 2016, she might even adopt somewhat more progressive policies as a result of having shared primary and caucus debate stages with Bernie Sanders.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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