Hillary Rodham Clinton was never going to waltz to the Democratic presidential nomination. The American political system doesn’t work that way.
No one, however, expected a 74-year-old senator from tiny Vermont to emerge at this point as her strongest challenger. Not the party’s wise men and women, not Clinton strategists. Not even the self-described Democratic socialist himself.
But Bernie Sanders’ stunning fundraising success and his continuing capacity to draw huge crowds seem to ensure he will stick around for months to come.
They two will share the stage Tuesday night in Las Vegas at the first debate among the Democratic candidates. The debate, at 7:30 p.m. CDT on CNN, also will involve three other candidates: Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland; Lincoln Chaffee, a former Rhode Island governor and senator; and Jim Webb, a former senator from Virginia and secretary of the Navy.
Even if Sanders falls short of the nomination, his campaign has helped to push Clinton and fellow Democrats in his leftward direction. In recent weeks, Clinton has staked a number of positions that narrowed the gap between the two: opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, proposing tougher regulation of Wall Street, rejecting a trade deal she helped negotiate with Asian countries and calling for the repeal of a federal tax on high-end health care plans.
Clinton may have come to those positions of her own volition, but her timing ahead of Tuesday’s debate appears to be no accident, just as her increased willingness to take on Sanders, albeit obliquely, hardly seems coincidental.
“Everything that I am proposing, I have a way to pay for it,” she said while campaigning last week in Iowa, no doubt mindful that Sanders’ platform, which includes a call for universal health care coverage and free college tuition, carries a hefty price tag.
“You’ve got a proposal,” Clinton challenged him, “tell us how you’re going to pay for it.”
Sanders’ response has been to welcome Clinton alongside. Professing delight at Clinton’s newfound opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, Sanders allowed that “it would have been more helpful to have her aboard a few months ago” when he was one of the loudest and loneliest voices in opposition.
Clinton, 67, remains a solid favorite to win the Democratic nomination, in large part because of her strong support among women, Latinos and African-Americans, who make up much of the party base. For all the talk of discontent, three in four likely Democratic primary voters view Clinton positively, and the same number say they could see voting for her regardless of whom they now support, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.
But Sanders’ rise and Clinton’s struggle with controversies over her family’s philanthropic foundation and the use of a private email server as secretary of state have seeded deep doubts about the front-runner and raised questions about both her political durability and personal veracity.
That has encouraged Vice President Joe Biden to seriously weigh a lightning entry into the race, a move that would instantly transform the contest from a race to catch Clinton into a brawl between the party’s two top heavyweights.
Many Democrats, perhaps envious of the boisterous GOP contest, are hankering for a fight.
A recent Field Poll found 63 percent of likely Democratic voters in California hoped the vice president would enter the race, though that didn’t necessarily translate into immediate support: Only 15 percent said they would back Biden if he did run.
The poll also showed Clinton leading Sanders 47 percent to 35 percent, a considerable narrowing of the gap from previous California surveys and a showing consistent with others that found the Vermont senator gaining strength both nationally and in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states due to cast the first 2016 ballots.
Sanders’ success is a perfect case of a man and his message meeting a particular moment, which finds many Democrats hungering for authenticity and a credible voice to take on the establishment — two qualities that Clinton, a former first lady, U.S. senator and Cabinet official, is perceived to distinctly lack.
His platform — breaking up the big financial institutions, publicly funding elections, raising taxes on the rich to pay for more government programs — may read like pie-in-the-sky liberalism. But that and his rumpled appearance only make him more appealing to a segment of Democrats who consider Clinton too pragmatically centrist. Even his embrace of the socialist label — Sanders has been a political independent most of his career — suggests he won’t bow to convention.
“He’s what he’s about and you either like him or you hate him,” said Mike Caranelli, 52, a paramedic who sprawled on the broad lawn at a Tucson park at an appearance Friday by Sanders, who shouted his critique of bankers and billionaires into the balmy desert night. “He’s one of the few politicians that tries to get accomplished what he’s about.”
None of it, Sanders’ strategists insist, is staged or calculated.
“This is the Bernie Sanders Show. It’s been going on a long time,” said Tad Devine, a senior campaign adviser who first worked with Sanders nearly 20 years ago. “The way he presents himself and what he says, this is not a new message or a new messenger.”
It has worked better than anyone, including the candidate, expected.
“I knew that these issues would resonate,” Sanders said last week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “but to be honest with you, I did not believe that they would resonate as quickly and as strongly … as they are.”
Perhaps the best evidence is the $26 million he raised over the summer — just $2 million less than Clinton — and, even more, the way he raked in that impressive sum. Unlike the front-runner, Sanders shunned high-dollar fundraising, receiving the overwhelming bulk of his Internet-fueled contributions in small amounts.
That not only reflects a strong level of grass-roots support but also promises staying power, as the Sanders campaign can go back and ask those donors to give again and again. (The average contribution, according to his campaign, is $30. Individuals can donate up to $2,700 in the primary before legally maxing out.)
Of course, important as they are, money and crowds don’t guarantee success.
In 2004, another Democratic upstart from Vermont, Howard Dean, raised unprecedented sums over the Internet and drew crowds that staggered his competition, only to lose badly once the balloting began.
With Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas comes a new phase of the race, one in which Sanders, Clinton and the rest of the Democratic hopefuls will increasingly be measured against one another, as opposed to the expectations that surround their candidacies.
For Clinton, after a rough few months, that can’t come soon enough. For Sanders, the true test is just beginning.