In the summer of 2015, before Bernie Sanders had staff on the ground in New Hampshire, Elizabeth Ropp, a 42-year-old acupuncturist, was making homemade signs for the Vermont senator.
“Bernie inspired me because as somebody who’s lived without health insurance for most of my adult life, I want there to be a single payer health care system,” she said.
She was disappointed Sanders wasn’t the nominee, and is convinced that if he had been, Donald Trump would not be president today.
“I want to see Bernie run again in 2020,” said Ropp. “We need Bernie to run even if the field is crowded.”
The 77-year-old Vermont senator has not yet announced his plans, but he’s sparked plenty of speculation.
In 2016, Sanders created a powerful progressive movement in a thin primary field. The dilemma for him now is that nearly every other Democratic presidential contender is adopting his positions on issues, like healthcare and minimum wage, which means progressive voters in 2020 have plenty of choices beyond Sanders himself.
“Medicare-for-all,” $15 minimum wage
Earlier this month, when Sanders reintroduced a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, every Democrat in the Senate who’s considering a run for president co-sponsored his legislation: Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar.
“He has made it legitimate to talk about things that a lot of us used to mumble,” said Arnie Arnesen, a radio show host and former New Hampshire politician who thinks of herself as Sanders’ ideological twin.
Arnesen says she’s grateful that he ran in 2016 because he helped “expose some of the rot” in her own party.
Sanders has helped change the Democratic National Committee rules for selecting a nominee, curtailing the role of superdelegates and shaped the current Democratic economic message. But Arnesen wonders whether he’s the right candidate for the White House.
“My question is, does he provide added value in this campaign for 2020? Or are there a lot of people who sort of carry very similar messages?” asked Arnesen, before answering her own question.
“Does it have to be him? I don’t think it does, and I admire him. I admire him to pieces.”
The clearest example of the change is Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who resigned as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee so she could endorse Sanders in the 2016 primary. Gabbard recently launched her own presidential bid.
Not the only progressive option
Sanders’ first decisive victory in 2016 came in the New Hampshire primary; he crushed Hillary Clinton there by 22 percentage points. And activists like Andru Volinsky were part of the reason he did so well.
Volinsky, Sanders’ New Hampshire campaign lawyer during the 2016 primary, said if the Vermont senator were to run for president again, he would be his top choice.
But it’s unclear whether Volinsky personally wants Sanders to run.
“I want a strong advocate for addressing issues like income inequality, and healthcare access and climate action,” said Volinsky. “Senator Sanders could be that strong voice. There are some others that could as well.”
Many voters who strongly backed Sanders in 2016, say they realize Sanders is not necessarily the only progressive option in 2020. For some, that’s confusing, but for others, it’s appealing.
Arnesen is excited by many of the candidates considering a run for the presidency; many of them, she believes, carry elements of Sanders message.
For example, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, she says, has a lot of the same “authenticity” as Sanders “without being 80 years old” when he’s elected (Sanders turns 79 in 2020).
“I think it’s time for us to start creating a new bench,” said Arnesen.”And the new bench isn’t old, it shouldn’t be white, and it probably shouldn’t be male,” she said.
Some Sanders supporters also say the political environment has changed since 2016 and they want a candidate who can win.
“Electability has leaped to the forefront for me,” said Ron Abramson, an immigration lawyer who served as a Sanders delegate to the DNC. “I am prepared to support anyone who can help restore some measure of sanity [and] humanity.”
Those sentiments are not an isolated feeling.
“We’re looking for somebody right now who can stand up to the nasty, nasty campaign that our idiot-in-chief the president is gonna run in 2020,” said Bill Stelling, an activist who runs an art gallery in Manchester.
Stelling is not convinced Sanders is the right person for that job.
Even though he was “hugely inspired” by Sanders message in 2016 and donated to the Vermont senator’s campaign, these days, he’s impressed with California senator Kamala Harris; he thinks she’s “fearless.”
He’s also intrigued by Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who tried to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year. This week, Stelling is going to a “Draft Beto” house party. He wanted to spread the word, so he posted a note about the meeting on Facebook, but was disheartened by the response.
“I immediately got some snarky comments from progressives,” said Stelling. “It’s so counterproductive.”
But loyal Sanders supporters are unyielding in their devotion to the Vermont senator, because, they insist, he is the only one pushing the Democratic party to the left.
“The other candidates are trying to posture themselves based on the assumption that Bernie Sanders is going to run,” said Tim Smith, a four-term state legislator in Manchester and early Sanders supporter in the 2016 primary.
“They don’t want to be seen as being members of the conservative wing of the party.”