While the Republican presidential nomination for the 2016 election was expected to be interesting with all of the candidates running, the Democratic race was expected to be a snoozer with Hillary Clinton owning a commanding lead against token opposition.
And then a self-proclaimed socialist named Bernie Sanders entered the race and from the beginning, he attracted capacity crowds of people day after day who were excited about a politician who truly seemed to care about the plight of the shrinking middle class along with the growing number of poor people. Even to the casual observer, it was obvious that something special was happening.
So what's behind all of this excitement over Bernie Sanders? There are a number of reasons for the excitement that are worth exploring here.
The first is that Sanders is filling a need that has for too long been ignored. And that is the need for a strongly liberal counterweight to all of the strongly conservative activism that has been driving much of the US political process since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Sure we have had Bill Clinton and Barack Obama since then but despite being labelled as socialists by the far right, they are most decidedly centrists. (Sanders, despite referring to himself as a socialist is in reality, just a liberal.) And while Hillary Clinton is trying to appeal to liberal voters, she too is viewed by many Democrats as also being a centrist in no small part due to her longtime ties to the Wall Street financial industry from when she was a US Senator from New York.
While surely a liberal voter would prefer a centrist over a conservative, it doesn't really scratch the itch. Conservative voters normally have a more than adequate number of choices and that is especially true with this year's Republican presidential candidates. Depending on one's preference, there are choices from moderately conservative to as far right as you damned well please.
However, unlike the Republicans where strong conservatism is a badge of honor, the mainstream Democrats try to do a balancing act of trying to appeal to liberals while stressing they are not too liberal, God forbid! After the strongly liberal George McGovern and Walter Mondale suffered landslide defeats (each losing 49 states!) there was no way the Democratic party establishment was going to ever let that happen again!
And then the unapologetically liberal Elizabeth Warren came onto the political scene generating tremendous voter excitement on the way to an improbable victory sending the political novice to the US Senate. Finally the liberals had their hero to root for! Now if she would only run for president...
Despite a tremendous amount of encouragement, Warren decided not to run. But she proved that the liberal wing of the Democratic party was becoming a force to be reckoned with.
With Warren not running and Hillary Clinton having no competition on her way to another seemingly inevitable nomination, Sanders decided that he might as well give it a try.
Nobody took him seriously. Who was going to pay attention to a rather frumpy looking 73 year old with a Brooklyn accent? Certainly not Hillary. And certainly nobody in the mainstream media.
Then a funny thing happened in Iowa and the neighboring states when Bernie announced he was coming to campaign in their town. People came in droves filling buildings to capacity to hear someone whom they sensed was truly interested in helping the common man instead of just the wealthy donors from industry and Wall Street who contribute to most of the other campaigns.
However, there is much more to the Sanders phenomenon than just his political views. There is also the air of authenticity he brings to his rallies. While some people pursue a political career to satisfy their ambitions for power and prestige, others see politics as a way to make the world around them a better place. Most observers feel that Sanders solidly belongs to the second group.
His positions on issues are completely laid out and very consistent. They are not subject to change to try and appeal to different audiences. In contrast, Hillary has been very calculating in announcing her positions, making many wonder whether she truly stands by her positions or is just telling her audiences what they want to hear so she can get elected.
In addition, he does not accept money from SuperPACs; instead he gets his contributions from many small donors so he is not beholden to powerful special interests like most of the other candidates who are running.
So does Bernie have a fighting chance to beat out Hillary for the nomination? Admittedly, he has a few things working against him. Although he is running for the Democratic nomination, he is an independent and thus not a member of the Democratic party. This means that the various Democratic officeholders around the country will likely support and work for Hillary since she is one of their own.
But more importantly, minorities such as blacks and Latinos do not know Sanders very well since his home state of Vermont is about 95% white. The highly respected election analyst and statistician Nate Silver in this article concedes that Sanders may well win Iowa and New Hampshire but will be stopped cold in South Carolina and other states that are less white and less liberal.
There is a general consensus that back in 2008, then Senator Obama was only able to compete with Hillary because he captured such an overwhelming majority of the black vote. The present poll numbers show Hillary as having very strong support from black voters while Sanders is mostly unknown to blacks.
So to answer the question in the title of this post on whether Sanders really has a chance to get the nomination, we must first answer the question on whether he can improve his situation by campaigning in minority areas and showing that his proposed solutions for making America better will also help them.
At this time, we just don't know how well his message will resonate with blacks and other minorities. Few people are aware that Sanders was active in the civil rights movement to fight against racial segregation. Surely he will make that a part of his story to them.
But there is a bigger block of the US registered voter population that defies any easy analysis - the voters who do not for whatever reasons, participate in the electoral process. And there a lot of them!
In recent times, we have had some political figures who could be called transformational. President Obama and Elizabeth Warren come to mind. And Bernie Sanders with the rabid reception he has received from his followers may also put him in this category if he can maintain his momentum. What they have in common is the ability to attract supporters to their causes who previously had not been politically active. These people can definitely make a difference in the outcome of an election!
Here's an example. In recent years, the voter turnout in US presidential elections has been around 50 to 55%. In non-presidential years, the turnout can be much lower. But when Elizabeth Warren was propelled to her improbable US Senate victory in 2012, a whopping 66.6% of registered Massachusetts voters turned out which undoubtedly helped put her over the top. This shows that even an apathetic non-voter can be inspired to be a participant if he or she can be persuaded that there is truly someone special who is worth their support.
Even some of Sanders' most enthusiastic supporters agree that he is a long shot. But he has been steadily making gains against Hillary and there is a long way to go until the primary elections next year. Once the debates start, Hillary can no longer ignore Sanders and will have to engage with him on the stage over the issues. That should really be worth watching!