Eric Davis: Bernie can shape campaign agenda
Sen. Bernard Sanders officially launched his presidential campaign in Burlington this week. If the presidential election were held only in Vermont, Massachusetts, New York City and northern California, Sanders might very well win. However, voters from 46 other states will also vote for president, so it is likely that the person who takes the oath of office in front of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2017, will be either Hillary Rodham Clinton or whoever emerges as the Republican nominee.
Even if Sanders ends up falling well short of the number of convention delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination, he could have influence over the campaign, but only if both the national media and Clinton cooperate. If Sanders can get exposure for his arguments about economic inequality, the squeeze on middle-class incomes, the importance of addressing climate change, and the influence of corporations and wealthy individuals on politics through the campaign finance system, he could make these issues more salient to voters, and force Clinton to address them more directly than she has to date.
However, to accomplish this goal Sanders will need to get extensive coverage in the national media. He has been on one Sunday interview show so far, on CNN, but he will need to get exposure on the national news networks on a near-weekly basis. These appearances on Sunday interview and other programs will generate articles about Sanders in the print media. Sanders will also need national newspapers such as The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal to cover his campaign events in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early caucus and primary states.
One of the best ways for Sanders to raise the profile of his candidacy and the issues he cares about would be to participate in multiple debates along with Hillary Clinton, and any other candidates who enter the Democratic nominating contest. However, Clinton may be reluctant to give Sanders and other rivals the attention that would come from appearing on the same platform with her.
Clinton has been running a Nixonian “Rose Garden”-style campaign, refusing to hold press conferences or campaign events open to all comers, rather than just a hand-picked or invited audience. Clinton will want to follow the classic front-runner’s strategy of having as few debates as possible rather than allowing challengers to get the publicity that debates would bring. She would also be pleased if the media were to devote more resources to covering the Republican nominating campaign between now and early 2016, to minimize the free media coverage for her Democratic opponents.
Sanders has set a financial goal of $50 million for his campaign. He should be able to raise this amount, relying primarily on individual contributions in the $25 to $200 range. This would give him enough resources to be competitive in the four early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. However, once the campaign turns to larger states in March and April 2016, Sanders may not be able to compete effectively, especially if there has been a big gap between him and Clinton in the early states, and if the early state results show Clinton managing to get 50 to 60 percent or more of the total vote against all comers.
The Vermont presidential primary will be held on March 1, 2016, Town Meeting Day. In spite of the endorsements of Clinton by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Gov. Peter Shumlin and other Democratic luminaries, Sanders could very well win the Vermont Democratic primary ahead of Clinton. However, a Vermont primary victory could also turn out to be “the last hurrah” for the Sanders presidential campaign.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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