The Associated Press is doing some deep dive stories on various candidates as the Democratic field shapes up and one obvious subject of interest has to be Bernie Sanders. He comes into the race with a lot of name recognition after his close finish in 2016 and he’s been consistently ranking near the top of the pack, just behind Joe Biden. But the thing that defined Sanders the last time around – his status as the ultimate outsider trying to break through the establishment barriers – isn’t really in play anymore. Now he’s being looked at as one of the frontrunners, if not the frontrunner. Will his style still work from that position?
Less than two months into his second White House bid, no other declared candidate in the crowded Democratic field currently has amassed so many advantages: a $28 million war chest, a loyal and enthusiastic voter base and a set of clearly defined policy objectives.
That puts Sanders on a markedly different footing than he was during his first White House run, creating new challenges for a candidate whose supporters relish his role as an underdog and an outsider. He now carries the weight of high expectations and will face heightened scrutiny over everything from the cost and feasibility of his government-funded policy proposals to his tax returns, which he has not yet released. He initially blamed “mechanical issues” for the delay, and his campaign now says he wants to wait until after the April 15 tax filing deadline to fulfill his promise to release a decade worth of returns.
The AP declares that Sanders is embracing his new frontrunner status, noting that he frequently compares himself to Donald Trump more than his Democratic rivals. They also highlight how Bernie has “learned from his mistakes.” For proof of that, they remind us of the criticism he drew in 2016 for having a mostly white, male staff. This time around a majority of his team is female and more than 40% are minorities. But is this being done simply because he explored a more diverse pool of talent when picking the best people or because one of his advisers said, “oh, crap… We’d better hire some girls, African-Americans and Hispanics?”
Defining Sanders as the “frontrunner” at this point isn’t outrageous, but it does come with a couple of significant caveats. Bernie is clearly the poll leader among all of the officially declared candidates. But Joe Biden hasn’t declared yet, and even with his unofficial status, he leads Sanders nearly everywhere, with the possible exceptions of Iowa, New Hampshire and most recently Massachusetts. Those are all important early states, but they don’t secure a victory. It’s probably more fair to say that Sanders is one of the frontrunners.
I suppose it’s valid to ask how well Sanders will “handle it” and if he’ll be modifying his tactics as a result. There’s a difference between being the Visigoth outside chucking rocks at the windows and being the homeowner trying to keep your house in one piece. In 2016 Sanders had virtually nothing to lose because Hillary Clinton was considered the de facto nominee from the beginning and he was seen as just upsetting the apple cart. This year there is no assumed heir to the throne, and there are some big names in the mix along with some surprisingly viable alternatives.
Sanders can’t just stick to his rather radical socialist policy talking points this time because too many of his opponents have adopted the same views. He’s probably going to have to mix it up with some of the Democrats eventually and we haven’t seen him do that in the past. As a lot of the long-shots begin dropping out later on, their supporters may coalesce around one or two others and then Bernie will have a fight on his hands. And we don’t yet know what kind of a fighter he is.