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Bernie Sanders: Can he turn ‘magic in a bottle’ into Democratic win?

Last modified: 7/22/2015 12:03:06 AM
Gordon Preston has lived in New Hampshire for 30 years and is about to host a party for a bunch of people he’s never met.

Preston is pulling for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a fiercely liberal avowed socialist who is steadily gaining traction among Democrats in New Hampshire – and beyond.

In two weeks, Preston will host a political fundraiser at his Barnstead home as he and other Sanders supporters listen to a live broadcast of the senator speaking about his campaign for president.

They’ll hear about issues such as education, health care, and the influence of money and special interests in politics. It’s what Sanders dubs “the buying and selling of Washington.” That message has resonated with Preston and a growing legion of volunteers. Many see this newfound allegiance as a sign that the senator’s recent momentum is built to last. Others, though, question whether this summer surge can last into next winter when voters conceivably choose between him and Hillary Clinton, the presumed frontrunner.

For the past few months, Sanders has been drawing crowds by the thousands in states including New Hampshire, Iowa and Minnesota. Earlier this month, 10,000 supporters showed up to a Sanders rally in Madison, Wis., and 7,500 turned out in Portland, Maine, forcing staffers to select a venue much larger than the 700-capacity space they had originally picked.

“It’s not just here in New Hampshire and Iowa. It’s all across the country,” said Kurt Ehrenberg, a well-known former New Hampshire labor organizer who is heading up the Sanders campaign in the state. “People are crying out for an authentic candidate.”

The challenge for Ehrenberg and other officials in the Sanders campaign is to grasp this momentum and turn it into votes, he said.

Right now, the focus of the campaign is squarely on Iowa and New Hampshire, the only two states where they have currently have full-time staff.

“There’s so much enthusiasm and so many people that want to do work on this campaign,” Ehrenberg said, adding that Sanders campaign in New Hampshire is still very grassroots. There are six full-time staffers in the state, but more than 305 active volunteers. That number keeps growing steadily, and Ehrenberg said there’s another 16,425 people in the New Hampshire campaign’s database who have expressed interest in volunteering.

It grows every day,” Ehrenberg said. “It’s the kind of campaign we run – leaps and bounds.”

Sanders has recently raised $15.2 million in campaign funds, largely from small donors. In a recent email to supporters, the campaign said the average donation was about $33.

Still, with leanings that are far from the mainstream, Sanders has a ways to go, New Hampshire political experts say.

“He grew faster, his campaign grew faster, than I thought it might,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala, “but he’s clearly filling a vacuum in the race, and he’s fulfilling a role that we’ve seen before in New Hampshire Democratic primaries.”

Namely, Scala said, the role of the Democratic progressive alternative, the same role filled by former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley in 2000, former Vermont governor Howard Dean in 2004 and current President Obama as a candidate in 2008.

Scala and Southern New Hampshire University’s Dean Spiliotes both say they see Sanders presenting a challenge to Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, but say they are skeptical that Sanders’s appeal will spread to the rest of America.

“I see his path to a competitive primary,” Spiliotes said. “I don’t see it to the nomination.”

There are numerous reasons for that, Scala and Spiliotes say. One is Sanders’s left-leaning politics; he is a socialist and has been declared an independent in the U.S. Senate for years, which they say could make it difficult for him to gain ground with more mainstream Democratic voters.

“The idea that a socialist would become a major party nominee in the United States is highly, highly unlikely,” Scala said.

There’s still a small question of whether Sanders can actually run on the ballot as a Democrat in New Hampshire, but that will be determined when he declares his candidacy in the fall, according to Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan.

So far, it seems unlikely that anyone in the New Hampshire Democratic Party will challenge him on that.

“The New Hampshire Democratic Party considers Bernie Sanders a Democratic candidate for president, and we will work to satisfy any requirements to make sure he’s on the ballot in February,” said party chairman Raymond Buckley in a recent statement.

Another obstacle is Clinton’s entrenched support with many New Hampshire Democrats, Scala said. Though many in the national media have speculated whether Clinton’s long political legacy will help her or hurt her, Scala says he believes it will be a boon.

“She’s got a deep well of support among New Hampshire Democrats,” Scala said. “That’s far more of a help for her than any kind of (speculation) about the dynasty question.”

Still, Spiliotes and Scala admit that issues like income inequality, student debt and affordable health care – issues that Sanders has made central to his campaign – seem to be resonating with voters right now.

“He’s a very enthusiastic guy,” Spiliotis said. “He’s always been a movement politician on the left.”

Members of Sanders campaign say they’re not too concerned by detractors at this point in the game.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, Bernie’s had questions like that throughout his career,” said national campaign spokesman Michael Briggs when asked if Sanders’ momentum is fleeting.

Right now, they are focusing on harnessing the energy in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states and making sure the surge lasts.

“He’s blown away by the reception, the turnout, almost entirely because the message is resonating,” Briggs said. “We’re looking at new ways . . . to catch this magic in a bottle.”


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