The US Feels the Bern: The Unlikely Ascent of Bernie Sanders

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Bernie Sanders’ insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination continued to outperform expectations, as the Vermont Senator swept to victory in the Wisconsin Primary. The self-proclaimed ‘Democratic Socialist’ continued to build momentum, as he took 56% of the vote in the state, notching his sixth straight win over rival Hillary Clinton. However, despite recent successes, Sanders still faces a daunting challenge if he hopes to secure the nomination at the party’s convention in Philadelphia in July.

Although he has notched significant victories, Sanders still trails Clinton by a margin of 1,030 to 1,280 in the delegate count, (the margin becomes even greater if ‘unpledged’ delegates are taken into account) making his path to the nomination a daunting one. His route is made even harder by the fact that the Democrats award delegates proportionally meaning he cannot just win big upcoming states like New York and Pennsylvania, he must win them handsomely. Election guru Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, has calculated that Sanders needs to win 57% of remaining delegates, a monumental task by any standards.

Although not impossible, such an outcome seems highly unlikely. Little of the terrain that remains would seem to favour Sanders, with the two biggest prizes that remain on offer – New York (which awards 274 delegates) and California (which awards 475 delegates) – having diverse populations and a large proportion of black voters – the demographic Sanders has performed most poorly amongst thus far. Sanders is also disadvantaged by the fact that the vast majority of the remaining states vote using the primary system, whereas Sanders has performed better in states that hold Caucuses, which require voters to travel to certain locations and take part in a lengthy process, suiting the candidate with the most enthusiastic supporters.

So, is the end nigh for Bernie? Not by a long shot. Despite the delegate maths not looking pretty, Sanders still has much going for him. Anyone vaguely familiar with American politics will understand the importance of money, and Sanders has no shortage of that. Having proved to be a formidable fundraiser, his campaign has raised more than any other. In March alone, he raised $44 million, far in excess of the $29.5 million raised by Clinton. Even more impressive, given that Sanders has renounced the big-money backing of corporations and Super-PACs used by Clinton, and relied almost solely on small individual contributions.

Such a wealth of resources will allow Sanders to continue to run big operations in the remaining states and will ensure he can remain in the race until the convention, an intention made absolutely clear by his camp recently. Having won seven out of the last eight states, there’s also no doubt that Sanders has the momentum in the race, something which is key in any political contest. Recent polls this week showed Sanders beating Clinton in national polls for the first time, and he continues to out-perform Clinton in head-to-head polls against Republican front-runners – although both appear to hold comfortable leads.

But perhaps most crucially, even if Sanders doesn’t emerge with the nomination, no one can call him a loser, in fact, his campaign can only be regarded as a resounding success. A 74-year old independent Senator who has spent his political career outspoken on the margins of US politics, few could have imagined Sanders would put up such a strong challenge, especially when facing the electoral juggernaut of Hillary Clinton, for whom many had assumed this contest would be little more than a coronation.

Win or lose, Sanders’ campaign has profoundly changed the landscape of the election. His surprising success has allowed him put the issues he has campaigned on for decades at the heart of the political agenda – with corporate power, campaign financing and economic inequality becoming core talking-points of the Democratic race – and clearly resonating with many voters, particularly young people, who have flocked to support his campaign. If any cynics viewed Sanders’ campaign as an attempt to push Clinton to the left, there is no doubt he has accomplished that goal, with Clinton having to fiercely defend her credentials as a progressive and her own record of close ties to corporate America.

Sanders’ success also raises intriguing possibilities for the American left moving forward. For someone who openly identifies as a Socialist to gain such far-reaching appeal is unchartered territory in recent US political history, with deep-rooted opposition to left-wing ideology deriving from the Cold War and America’s core ideals. There are however, signs that attitudes may be changing.

A poll conducted among under-30s showed 43% had a favourable view of Socialism, whilst just 32% thought the same of Capitalism. It is clear that Sanders has tapped into a sense of frustration amongst swathes of young Americans, who face huge debts from college education and an economy in which wage growth is stagnating – a concoction seemingly leading many to question the wisdom of America’s Neoliberal orthodoxy. Whether left-wing candidates will be able to capitalise on Sanders’ success in the forthcoming years remains to be seen, but his meteoric rise is certainly a cause for hope for progressives across the Atlantic.

So now it’s all eyes on New York which holds its state primary on 19th April, a battle that may be decisive in determining the fate of the Democratic nomination. With both Sanders and Clinton having close ties to the state – Sanders was born and raised in Brooklyn, whilst Clinton represented the state as a Senator – the contest promises to be closely fought, perhaps with a combative edge not yet seen on the Democratic side of the election. The respective campaigns have already jousted over the arrangements for a debate – which will now be held in Brooklyn on 14th April – whilst controversy has raged over Clinton’s links to the fossil fuel industry and Sanders has come under fire for his plans to break up the banks. A win for Sanders would mean another step along his unlikely road to the nomination, whilst a win for Clinton would make the Vermonter’s mountain steeper still.

But in reality, win or lose, Bernie Sanders scored a colossal victory over the US’ political establishment, and his campaign could yet have a profound impact on the political landscape for years to come.

 

Photograph by Eli Christman via Flickr

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