Going back almost a year when Bernie Sanders first talked about running for president, Tad Devine, his longtime strategist, told him he would need $40 million to $50 million to get through Iowa and New Hampshire. That was a big number, and for a time Sanders held back, unsure he could raise that kind of money.
Sanders has now taken in well over $40 million, “and I don’t think the fundraising is going to stop,” says Devine. Good thing because what he calls “The Plan” for Sanders to win the Democratic nomination is predicated on those dollars—and doing very well in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Sanders came close to matching Hillary Clinton in the last quarter, bringing in $26 million compared to her $28 million. And Sanders wasn’t flying to New York for fundraisers three times a month, or out to the West Coast to hit up donors in Silicon Valley. He doesn’t do any of that stuff, practicing what he preaches about the evils of big money in politics.
As the Democratic candidates prepare for their first debate Tuesday, polls show Sanders ahead in New Hampshire and closing on Clinton in Iowa. “The historic momentum that comes from early victories coupled with a different way of raising money, coupled with a strong message—if we put it together and keep it together we’ve got a real shot at this thing,” Devine told The Daily Beast.
By every benchmark, Sanders is ahead of where Barack Obama was as a candidate in ’07, a comparison Devine delights in making. Before Sanders launched his presidential bid, he had an email list with 400,000 names. Before he announced, Obama had 20,000 names. Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention put him on the map, but Sanders struck political gold with an eight-hour filibuster on corporate greed and the decline of the middle class after Obama struck a deal with Congress in December 2010 to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for two more years.
“A lot of people followed him after that,” says Devine. “They liked what he had to say.” Known simply as “The Speech,” it made Sanders a C-SPAN celebrity, and built the foundation for his grassroots fundraising. At the end of September, Sanders had 650,000 individual contributions. “Obama didn’t get to this level of contributors until after Iowa,” says Devine. “This pace is very good by any historical mark. By the time we get to Iowa, we want people to know this campaign is for real, it’s not a symbolic effort to raise a few issues.”
Devine is no novice, he has been at the center of two competitive and, for Democrats, heartbreaking campaigns: Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. He knows what’s ahead. “Swift Boating will look mild compared to what’s coming against Bernie. I get it—but it’s a different age. Our ability to communicate online with tools we never had before—a lot of this stuff, we can just blow up saying it comes from Super PACs.”
For now, though, if Sanders is going to be taken seriously as a potential nominee, he has to show that he has the capacity to build a national campaign. The plan calls for paid staff on the ground by the end of October in every voting state through Super Tuesday—not 50 people like they have in Iowa, or the 40 plus a state director in New Hampshire, but a real presence. A volunteering network online asks people to sign a card and take on certain tasks. The new trade pact that Obama is pushing, and which Clinton recently flip-flopped on, is a prime target for Sanders, especially in the Midwest where manufacturing job losses are blamed on global trade.
The strength of the Sanders campaign has not softened the Democratic Party’s resistance to him as a potential nominee. The insiders only understand winning, says Devine. “All of this is predicated on winning early and winning often. If we don’t do that, we’ll never win the inside game.”
Clinton has a huge advantage with party leaders and super delegates, but she hasn’t yet turned out crowds that come anywhere near what Sanders is seeing. And Sanders got his first endorsement a few days ago from a member of Congress, Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva.
Last week, it was 27,000 people in Portland, and 24,000 in Boston—more than went to hear Obama at a similar stage in his campaign. “He is demonstrating he can do what Obama did, which is change the composition of the electorate,” says Devine.
Sanders has a litany of ideas that hit directly at core sets of voters: working men and women who like Social Security expansion, a massive jobs program, and a $15 minimum wage; environmentalists who like his straight-up call for a carbon tax to deal with climate change; and voters disgusted with super PACs who like that he is not reliant on big money.
The rationale of the Sanders campaign is that it can win by appealing to disaffected voters and expanding the electorate. Devine said he told the Democratic National Committee they should set up a table and register voters at Sanders rallies. “We’re trying to get them in the door here. It would be smart for the Democratic Party to take advantage of the Sanders phenomenon. If you go to a Sanders rally now, there’s a good chance you’ll vote for a Democrat in 2016.”
So far, the DNC hasn’t taken him up on the idea. “I think they’re afraid they’ll all vote for Bernie,” he says, chuckling.
If all goes according to plan, Sanders will have won enough delegates by mid-March to be a serious contender for the nomination. That would signal a shift for Sanders; it would be time to court the establishment. “Then we have to offer fundamental assurances to party leaders who say he’s a socialist. He’s been in the Congress 25 years and his program is not to replace the current system with socialism, it’s to revive the middle class.”
Sanders’s outsider campaign has been likened to Jesse Jackson’s insurgent campaign in 1988—it wasn’t until the Wisconsin primary in April that Michael Dukakis defeated Jackson. But Devine thinks the more apt analogy to today’s politics is 1984 when the combination of Gary Hart’s insurgency and Jackson’s coalition of minority voters together almost beat Walter Mondale. “Jackson never received support from the institutional party, but he demanded respect. If we register, as Jesse Jackson did, millions of people, that would be a huge lift for the party in Senate races.” And for whichever Democrat reaches the magic number of delegates next year to secure the nomination.
The idea that Sanders is good for the Democratic Party is a hard lesson for Clinton to appreciate in the heat of battle. But he’s got voters fired up and ready to go, and Democrats need that energy.