The narratives spun by political and media elites at the close of the 2012 election campaign were all about money and television buys, polls and personalities. Both major parties focused on a narrow set of issues, and an even narrower set of appeals directed to a conventional wisdom that imagined Americans wanted only drab variations on the moderate themes sounded by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in their last debate. But up in Vermont, one of the most refreshingly unconventional politicians in America was coasting toward re-election with a campaign that broke all the rules. A week before the election, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had run no attack ads. In fact, he hadn’t run any TV commercials. He was still speaking in full sentences, not soundbites; still inviting voters to ask complicated questions on controversial issues—and still answering with big, bold proposals to address climate change, really reform healthcare with a single-payer “Medicare for All” program, steer money away from the Pentagon and toward domestic jobs initiatives, and counter the threat of plutocracy posed by Citizens United by amending the Constitution. Rejecting the empty partisanship of the pre-election frenzy, Sanders was ripping the austerity agenda of Romney and Paul Ryan, while warning that Obama and too many Democrats were inclining toward an austerity-lite “grand bargain” that would make debt reduction a greater priority than saving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
And Sanders was winning—big. A poll conducted by the Democratic Party of Vermont had the independent senator with a 69–21 lead over his rival, Republican John MacGovern, a businessman and four-term Massachusetts state legislator who promised to replace “the only admitted socialist in the US Senate.” Sanders was ahead among women and men, across income and education categories, and in every region. “I go crazy with all these Democrats saying you have to go conservative to win, you have to go cautious to win. These damned consultants come in and say, ‘This is how you have to run,’ and it’s always the same: raise money, spend it on television, don’t say anything that will offend anyone. And the Democrats do it and then they end up in tight races, worried about whether they’ll make it,” says Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats but rarely takes advice from anyone in Washington. “For the life of me, I can’t figure out why progressives listen to consultants. Building movements, making progress on progressive issues— you have to talk to people, educate people, organize people.”
So Sanders took the money he raised for his re-election campaign and put it into an energetic door-knocking project that began long before other candidates were running TV ads. The point wasn’t to build name recognition; through forty years of losing and then winning elections, Sanders has been to virtually every town in the state. At the roughly 20,000 doors knocked on by the legions of Sanders volunteers during this campaign, the “ask” was for a lot more than votes. Vermonters were urged to come out and spend a few hours—yes, a few hours—with Sanders at their town halls. “We’ve organized meetings in towns of 300, and more than 100 people show up. They stay into the evening, talking about saving post offices and getting people dental care and bringing troops home from Afghanistan.”
Sanders bristles when pundits who don’t know Vermont dismiss his approach to campaigning as a regional deviation that might work in what is often portrayed as a quirky liberal state that couldn’t possibly have relevance for the rest of the country. “It wasn’t that long ago that Vermont was one of the most Republican states in the country. Until two years ago, the governor was a Republican; the lieutenant governor is a Republican. This is a significantly rural state. This is a state with some very conservative regions.” Polls had Sanders leading by wide margins even in areas where Democrats run poorly. Why? Because the senator does not waste money on TV commercials designed to scare or fool voters into backing him. Rather, he goes where voters live. Personal Democracy Media co-founder and editorial director Micah Sifry, who has followed Sanders and Vermont politics for years, recalls: “Visiting hunting lodges to talk about protecting natural resources for hunting and fishing and establishing a connection with [hunters] was one of the ways that Sanders managed to earn the trust of the predominantly conservative and working-class Northeast Kingdom section of Vermont, which regularly gives Sanders, a self-declared socialist, its hearty support.”
If national Democrats did the same, Sanders suggests, there could be many more progressive Democrats representing rural states. He gets furious at the “swing-state strategies” that target a few competitive states and districts while neglecting the long-term work of building support in “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” areas.
As the 2012 race took shape, there was plenty of discussion about the prospect that the Vermonter would become a target of Karl Rove and the right-wing money machine. After all, says the senator, “There’s nobody Wall Street likes less.” Former Republican Governor Jim Douglas weighed the race seriously before deciding not to run. “ Why didn’t they think they could come in and shout ‘socialist’ and ‘radical’ and take me out?” asks Sanders. “I think they realized they can’t roll over someone who has built real connections with people, not with thirty-second ads but by holding town meetings, by using newsletters to talk about economic issues, by taking their side when the big fights come.”
That last piece of the equation is what worries Sanders most. He’s concerned that, no matter how the presidential and congressional races turn out, the post-election season will see Democrats accepting inconclusive results as a call for more of the same. “Why, in God’s name, in a tight race, did Barack Obama have a hard time saying six words: ‘I will never cut Social Security’? Why won’t these Democrats say: ‘We will never cut Social Security’?” wonders Sanders. “If they can’t say that, how are they ever going to go after Wall Street?” The American people have answers to those questions, he says: “They think it has a lot to do with where campaign money comes from.” If Democrats do compromise, a lot of voters will believe they were unduly influenced by the money power. That’s why Democrats, especially progressive Democrats, have a lot more to learn about how to win elections without relying on big money and the cookie-cutter strategies of campaign consultants. It’s a lesson they could learn from Bernie Sanders.
John Nichols, The Nation’s first blogger, keeps close to the grassroots, with an ear to the ground. His latest dispatch is “Yes, Romney's a Liar, but This Is Getting Ridiculous.”