Helaine Olen, comment

Within moments of Bernie Sanders' announcement he was running for president again in 2020, many stepped forward to pour cold water on his chances.

He's too radical, say some. Democrats' leftward shift means he's no longer radical enough, say others. He's too ancient, says yet another group.


Not so fast. Early fundraising totals reveal a solid number of Sanders' 2016 supporters remain committed where it matters - the wallet.

According to his campaign, the Sanders campaign raised about US$5.9 million from 225,000 potential voters within 24 hours of his announcement and surpassed US$6 million a few hours after that.

That blew past the totals for senators Elizabeth Warren (almost US$300,000 on her first day), Kamala Harris (US$1.5 million in the first 24 hours) and Amy Klobuchar (US$1 million in the first 48 hours).

Yes, Warren launched her campaign on New Year's Eve, a day many Americans are not web surfing. And yes, none of the three ran for president in 2016, and thus their name recognition and their initial hauls were bound to be lower.

But regardless, in a society where we judge people by their money, the eye-popping totals suggest that Sanders will likely play a large role in a the 2020 Democratic primaries - and possibly beyond.

All this shouldn't come as a surprise, yet it often seems to, at least in the Acela corridor.

In a world where income inequality continues to soar, common sense says Sanders' populist message appeals to many. Millions of Americans support Sanders' agenda, or at least parts of it. Poll after poll after poll shows solid majorities of all ages say they want to see "Medicare-for-all," a US$15-an-hour minimum wage and higher taxes on the wealthiest among us.

But there is something else, too. Sanders, 77 - either deliberately or accidentally - has figured out a way to make his relatively advanced age work in his favour. In American society, we often brush off the elderly.


But there remains a long-established trope, something I'll dub the Golden Girls appeal for the 1980s-1990s hit television show.

These people are who they are, and they remain committed to their passions. They don't talk down to the young people, but neither do they scold, or blame them for their woes.

At the same time, they don't sugarcoat their critiques. They don't pretend to share their taste in music, but they share something more important - they share their idealism and their belief that we don't need to settle for realism, or second best. They are, you might say, brass-tack dreamers.

Sanders, who, in an age of polished video, often turns up looking as if he forgot to brush his hair, makes zero effort to modulate his distinct New York honk despite decades of living in Vermont, and released a campaign commercial in 2016 featuring the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel, fits this profile perfectly.

He tells a generation of Americans indebted by student loans that college tuition can once again be an inconsequential expense. It wouldn't take a "magic genie," as Klobuchar claimed on Tuesday, just a society willing to support it.

And he doesn't just say he would like to see a US$15 minimum wage. He all but shamed Amazon into raising its minimum hourly pay last year to US$15 an hour, after he debuted legislation named in honour of Jeff Bezos, that would have required large companies to pay the government back if their employees still need government benefits to get by.

None of this is to say Sanders is home free. He's not, and not just because a lot can happen between now and next year.

Older voters could balk at Sanders' uncompromising progressive policies. The larger and more progressive slate of candidates this year may carve up his support.

For all that people like elderly truth-tellers, Sanders' more than occasional obliviousness to how progressives think about gender and race can grate.

Others remain angry about how his last presidential campaign handled allegations of sexual harassment by staffers or point to allegations of yelling at his own workers.

He struggled with many black voters in 2016.

More than a few people remain angry at him for his challenge to Hillary Clinton, and it's quite possible the avid middle-age female volunteers of the resistance to Trump will give their energies to another.

Sanders might not even have the Democratic elderly truth-teller lane to himself - former Vice-President Joe Biden could decide to run. Warren could also take the role, though it remains harder for her, thanks to sexism, to fill that role.

But Sanders comes with the formidable muscle. He has passionate supporters who remain committed, years of experience in grassroots organising, and a political environment that has only become friendlier to his views since the last time he ran.

And no candidate who can raise so much so quickly from so many small donors can be dismissed so cavalierly and quickly.


Jennifer Rubin, comment

Senator Bernie Sanders, I, raised approximately US$6 million in the first 24 hours after his presidential campaign announcement. But his Democratic opponents shouldn't be surprised or concerned.

Sanders is the only Democratic contender for 2020 who ran for president in 2016, during which he raised about US$230 million.

For someone with nearly universal name recognition, an extensive donor list and a long run-up to his announcement, Sanders's haul shouldn't impress knowledgeable political watchers. Should Joe Biden announce, I would bet his 24-hour fundraising total will dwarf Sanders' total. A former vice-president shouldn't have to lift a finger to trigger a flood of money.

More to the point, fundraising totals, I would argue, have as much predictive value as, say, poll numbers nearly a year before the Iowa caucuses (February 3, 2020). Ask Ron Paul (US$40 million raised in 2012, zero primary victories) or Jeb Bush (US$155 million raised by his campaign and outside groups).

Ask Hillary Clinton, whose fundraising prowess in 2008 didn't secure the nomination and in 2016 struggled to defeat Sanders before losing to Donald Trump.

Money only gets you so far and in some instances conveys an unwarranted front-runner status (e.g. Jeb Bush) that contributes to the perception of underperformance if the candidate doesn't win in early states.

I would argue that for all the talk of dark money - which is most certainly an issue insofar as it erodes faith in democracy and contributes to polarisation - money will matter even less this time around in the primary, and perhaps even in the general election.

Instead of talking about who has the "most money," we would do better to see if a candidate has "enough money." And early on, even having "enough money" isn't such a big deal. In 2008, Senator John McCain, R, was famously broke going into New Hampshire, won there and never looked back.

In 2012, former Senator Rick Santorum had little more than his trademark sweater vest when he eked out a narrow win in the Iowa caucuses. The benefit of small states as the early contests is that it levels the money playing field.

You expect 2020 will be different because of an early Super Tuesday with states in which advertising is essential and expensive (e.g. California, Texas). It will be different, but for several reasons, I'm not convinced that will make money more important this time around.

Firstly, the month between the Iowa caucuses and Super Tuesday gives a surprise victor or a surging underdog time to generate a rush of money. (Yes, California early voting will be underway on March 3, but plenty of voters will wait until Election Day precisely to size up the field. Moreover, there are eight other Super Tuesday states.)

Secondly, digital ads picked up by TV and other media give candidates a cheap way to get widespread coverage. (Recall the viral ads from the 2018 congressional races, such as the biographical piece from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). Furthermore, if one masters free media, Trump showed you can dominate the news cycle and drown out ads.

Finally, Sanders has another obstacle that may undercut any money advantage he has. CNN's Ronald Brownstein explains that after Iowa and New Hampshire, "the next month of the primary calendar is dominated by states across the Sun Belt where non-white voters comprise a large share, and often an absolute majority, of the electorate." He writes:

"The pivot begins with Nevada and South Carolina, where contests will be held in the second half of February. The tilt toward diversity then explodes in early March when big Sun Belt states from Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in the southeast to Arizona and Texas along with California across the southwest will all crowd together on the calendar.

"That could advantage the candidates best positioned to appeal to minority voters, particularly African-Americans - a list led by black Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, as well as former Vice-President Joe Biden, who's still considering whether to run."

In other words, money's not everything - and certainly not as important as the media often suggest it is.