WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders used Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate to pitch the populist economic message that has electrified his supporters. The question for the Vermont independent now: Can he expand his following beyond the Democratic Party’s liberal base?
To have a chance at winning the party’s nomination, political experts say, Sanders must make inroads with voters supporting former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and that didn’t seem to happen during the debate.
“He’s locked up the liberal vote,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “I’m not sure this performance got him more people into the fold. He didn’t steal away any Clinton voters.”
Sanders, polling at about 25%, skipped the chance for a personal introduction and launched straight into his core message: The middle class is disappearing and the nation’s campaign finance system “is corrupt and is undermining American democracy.”
Sanders’ strategy is to expand the Democratic electorate beyond the people who normally vote in primaries. The more than 4,000 debate-watch parties organized by his backers “will turn out votes and help us win this election,” Sanders wrote in a Wednesday email to supporters.
By some measures, Sanders generated more online and social media interest than his debate rivals, and some focus groups cast him as the winner. Experts said he did well, but Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said “I don’t think he did anything to add supporters.”
His opening included an appeal to minority voters — who are largely in Clinton’s camp — by citing the country’s high rates of incarceration and youth unemployment.
But Sanders was forced off that message to defend his more moderate record on guns by noting that he represents a rural state, said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, campaign manager of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004. Sanders favors a ban on assault weapons along with strong background checks for firearms buyers, including at gun shows, but he’s voted to limit gun makers’ and gun dealers’ legal liability and he opposed the pro-gun control Brady Bill.
“All of a sudden the dialogue was defensive and not aimed outward into expanding his base,” Trippi said. “I never saw it circle back.”
Sanders was characteristically passionate in defending his political identity as a democratic socialist, his conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war and his rejection of capitalism.
“I believe in a society where all people do well, not just a handful of billionaires,” he told CNN moderator Anderson Cooper.
His most memorable moment, though, had nothing to do with his own record. In one of the most striking statements of the debate, Sanders angrily condemned the controversy surrounding Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, saying “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.”
His campaign seized the moment as an immediate fundraising opportunity, seeking small contributions in an email. Campaign officials said they raised $1.3 million within the four hours after the debate began.
They also said Sanders’ comments about the email server were unrehearsed.
“With Bernie, there’s no way we’re ever going to try to change the way he presents himself or what he says,” Tad Devine, Sanders’ senior media adviser, said before the debate began. “Because that’s the power of his campaign. We think he’s connecting to people because he’s very authentic in his presentation and his message is more powerful than anyone else’s.”
Goldford said the moment made Sanders seem magnanimous. But his unwillingness to exploit a chance to hurt his main opponent could be a weakness, he said.
If Sanders is correct about the existence of a “great liberal majority” that hasn’t been mobilized, he should emphasize Clinton’s establishment Wall Street connections and argue “she’s too quick to compromise with the powers that be,” Goldford said.
“He’s got his particular views… and both the strength and the weakness of his campaign is it’s never been about Bernie, it’s always been about his ideas,” Goldford said.
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