In early October, Senator Bernie Sanders, seventy-eight, suffered a heart attack. On October 4, 2019, he tweeted, “After two and a half days in the hospital, I feel great, and after taking a short time off, I look forward to getting back to work.” According to RealClearPolitics, despite an immediate drop in national polls from 17.8 percent to 14.3 percent, Sanders sustained a steady increase in the five months following his heart attack. He went on to win the popular vote in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, becoming the first non-incumbent to do so.
This is not to say his heart attack galvanized support, but it’s clear it didn’t dampen it. So why hasn’t the public considered his heart attack a disqualification?
On February 3, two hours before the Iowa caucuses, I walked into a busy Sanders organizing site in Davenport, Iowa. Featuring crowds of volunteers and paid organizers, poster-lined walls, and chalkboards filled with seemingly infinite stories of why this election matters, the excitement and liveliness of Sanders’s office was unrivaled by those of his opponents, which were largely empty and winding-down. It was in the midst of this bustle that I found an answer to my question: why is this seventy-eight-year-old who had a heart attack merely five months ago surging in popularity?
These volunteers—ranging from Baby Boomers who lived down the road to Gen Zers from Canada—saw Sanders, fundamentally, as a fighter. And whether he’s fighting for justice or physical recovery, he is far too determined and persistent to be stopped.
Jeremy, a volunteer from Chicago, pointed to Medicare For All as an example, claiming “he’s fighting for it.” He then generalized: “There’s just so much going on and Bernie is a fighter.” That message was reiterated by every volunteer. Jordan, who came that morning on a packed Bernie bus from Chicago, spent the entire interview on her phone, coordinating the logistics to drive people to the caucuses. She explained that Senator Elizabeth Warren was her second choice, but she was far more confident in Sanders because she “doesn’t think Elizabeth hits it home as hard. [Bernie] hits all of these points that they’re both for much harder.” Matt, a volunteer who flew from Canada, talked to us as we accompanied him on a drive to pick up a car full of caucus-goers. He also considered Warren as a second choice because he was convinced that “there’s only one real … fighter in the race” and that “[Warren’s] just not a fighter; she’s a law professor.”
These three volunteers were by no means unique. Everyone in the office was—even in the final minutes—coordinating drivers, returning from canvassing, or making calls. It was a hectic scene of inspired people fighting for a fighter.
At the caucuses themselves, Sanders supporters recapitulated the same message. Chantelle, who stood proud in her bright blue “Bernie” shirt, took on the role of speaking for the candidate in front of the entire precinct. She explained, “He’s the one that’s been fighting for civil rights.” Dave, a precinct captain for Sanders, was passionate about the senator’s “great record”—also insisting he’s been fighting for justice his entire career.
These caucus-goers and volunteers cared about Sanders because they were convinced he has fought and would continue to fight; that is his brand. People across Iowa, from those who have engaged in politics for years to those who were caucusing for the first time, were reinvigorated by a politics of fighting for every American. Although his posters may read “Not Me. Us.”, in contrast to Warren’s “Dream Big. Fight Hard,” it is clear that Sanders has been perceived as the only fighter running in this race. As such, his heart attack and speedy recovery—traveling the country and campaigning nonstop weeks later—align perfectly not only with what his supporters expect of him, but with why they support him in the first place.
This perception of Sanders extends beyond the 2020 race. In 2016, Hillary Clinton spoke behind a sign reading “Fighting for us.” Sanders supporters interrupted the speech chanting, “She wins, we lose.” As they were escorted out, Clinton announced, “You may not be supporting me, but I am supporting you. I will fight for you.” She attempted to brand herself as a fighter, someone who makes change within the establishment. Though her record makes clear she has done just that, people saw Sanders as a fighter and Clinton as a politician seeking to conserve the status quo. Thus many Democratic voters, at least in the last two primaries, have considered Sanders to be the fighter of the Democratic Party.Now, with the competition narrowed down to just two candidates—Joe Biden and Sanders—popular opinion seems to mirror that of 2016. Biden talks about fighting “the battle for the soul of the nation” and regularly alludes to his fight for Barack Obama’s votes in Congress, but his fundamental promise has been a “return to normalcy.” As such, similar to Clinton in 2016, he has been labeled as establishment, moderate, not a fighter. These descriptors run counter to what Sanders supporters want: revolution. Regardless of who wins the nomination, Sanders supporters are convinced: there are important changes worth fighting for, and Sanders is the one to lead those fights.
Eric Shagrin is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. The Image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic. The photographer was Gage Skidmore. The original image can be found here.