Sen. Bernie Sanders
’s (I-Vt.) play for the white working-class voters who helped elect President Trump
in 2016 is hard to miss.
The Vermont senator and presidential hopeful embarked Friday on a four-day campaign swing through the Rust Belt that will take him through states where Hillary Clinton
faltered in 2016.
He has hewn closely to the progressive proposals that have defined much of his political career – Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage and a nationwide ban on so-called “right to work” laws – while taking a more cautious line on court packing, immigration and getting rid of the Senate filibuster.
And on Monday, he’s slated to appear at a town hall event hosted by Trump’s news network of choice, Fox News.
Sanders’s aides and advisers are convinced that the self-described democratic socialist is the candidate best positioned to win over working-class voters in 2020, arguing that his populist message and insurgent style will yield gains in states carried by Trump.
His campaign is intersectional, his aides and advisers say, transcending racial and ethnic lines and appealing to a broad cross section of blue-collar Americans.
But they also say that his core message – that decades of lopsided trade deals and special interests in Washington have exacted a toll on the country’s working class – has a particular appeal to many of the voters who put Trump in the White House, especially those in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“They realize now that they’ve been hoodwinked and who’s more to trust than someone who’s been talking about this their entire career,” Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to Sanders, said.
Norman Solomon, a coordinator for an informal group of Sanders delegates called the Bernie Delegates Network, said that Sanders is positioning himself “to win over people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012” but cast ballots for Trump in 2016.
“Part of the troubling punchline is they’ve been driven away by the corporatist policies that held sway during the Obama years and that Hillary Clinton represented,” Solomon said.
Sanders held a rally in Madison, Wis. on Friday, the first stop in a four-day trek across Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Speaking to supporters, the Vermont senator drove home a central argument of his White House bid – that Trump misled working-class voters with hollow campaign promises.
“The biggest lie of all was when he said that he would stand with the working class of our country, that he was on their side and that he would take on powerful special interests to protect working families,” Sanders said. “What a monstrous lie that was.”
Sanders already has a history of electoral success in some of these states, having notched key primary wins in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and West Virginia in 2016.
He also nearly defeated Clinton in Iowa, which holds the crucial first-in-the-nation presidential caucus.
The Vermont senator’s focus on the upper Midwest so early in the 2020 primary process offers a preview of his general election strategy.
None of the states visited by the senator over the weekend hold their nominating votes early in the cycle.
But Sanders’s team sees Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania as more crucial to his campaign than perhaps any other battleground.
“This is very much a general election argument,” one Sanders aide said. “Basically what we’re saying is you can’t get to 270 without Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.”
Sanders’s campaign manager Faiz Shakir outlined the strategy in a memo last week, arguing that carrying those three states while losing in other battlegrounds, like Florida and Ohio, would still be enough for Sanders to win the White House.
“Democrats could still lose all the traditional battleground states Florida and Ohio, the expanding sunbelt battleground states Texas and Arizona, and the newly competitive southern battleground states of North Carolina and Georgia – and still win the White House in 2020 with Bernie Sanders securing wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania,” Shakir wrote.
Other candidates are also making a point to court the working class.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), for instance, kicked off his presidential bid last month with a road trip through Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
And on Friday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren
(D-Mass.) joined striking Stop&Shop supermarket workers on the picket line in her home state.
One of the latest candidates to join the Democratic primary field, Rep. Tim Ryan
(D-Ohio), launched his campaign with a recounting of decades of factory closures and job losses in his home state.
The campaign efforts reflect a broader sentiment in Democratic politics that Clinton’s failure to spend more time campaigning in the upper Midwest helped rupture the party’s so-called “Blue Wall” there, ultimately handing the White House to Trump.
Sanders’s most formidable opponent in his bid for working-class voters may be former Vice President Joe Biden
, an ex-senator from Delaware who earned the nickname “Middle-class Joe” during a more than 40-year career in Washington.
A Monmouth University poll of likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers released Thursday showed Biden leading the pack of 2020 hopefuls among voters earning less than $50,000 a year, as well as those without a college degree.
At the same time, Biden, who has yet to announce a presidential bid, has deep ties to organized labor, developed over a nearly 50-year career in public service, that could potentially offer influential endorsements should he enter the presidential contest.
But Sanders’s allies contend that his history of success in the upper Midwest and leading role in bringing proposals like Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage into the political mainstream gives him an unmatched credibility among working-class voters.
“As we saw in 2016, Sen. Sanders is incredibly popular in the upper Midwest,” said Jeff Weaver, the campaign manager for Sanders’s 2016 bid and a current senior adviser.
“And you saw that in 2018 where candidates in the upper midwest were very eager for him to campaign with them in the midterms.”
At the same time, Sanders has been more circumspect than some of his primary opponents in addressing certain liberal proposals, worrying that taking a hardline stance on issues like court packing and reparations for the descendants of slaves could isolate more independent-minded voters.
In an interview with HuffPost this week, Sanders said that he does not want to do away with the filibuster, as candidates like Warren and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg
At a recent town hall event in Iowa, Sanders rebuffed the suggestion that he supports open borders and instead called for “comprehensive immigration reform.”
And at an event in Washington earlier this month, he expressed concerns about a plan to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court – a proposal backed by some liberal activists and 2020 hopefuls – warning that if Democrats took such a step, there would be nothing stopping Republicans from doing the same in the future.
A Sanders aide said that the campaign was instead focused on more kitchen-table issues, like health care, an issue that helped propel Democrats into the House majority during the 2018 midterm elections and that consistently polls among the top issues for voters.
“We want to set the tone and we want to win these places with an economic and health care message,” the aide said. “Bernie is speaking on these issues in a way no one else in the field is.”
Rocha, the senior adviser to Sanders, said that those are issues that ultimately resonate with working-class voters.
“The message that we constantly hear is an anxiety about losing their jobs, losing their health care or how they can even get health care,” Rocha said. “Bernie Sanders has been a leader and constant for generations and we feel like that’s the magic method to win.”
Sanders sees path to beating Trump in Rust Belt
Sen. Bernie Sanders