While the Trump storm has taken the Republican presidential contest by surprise, a similar outlier is shaking up the Democratic race, too. Bernard [Bernie] Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, is vying for the nomination of a party of which he has never been a registered member during his 40-year political career. Just like in the case of Trump, no one took Sanders seriously when he started exploring the possibility of a presidential run. Hillary Clinton was thought to be the automatic choice. Sanders, however, has managed to shake up the race since May 26, 2015, the day he formally announced his candidature.
Sanders jumped into the lead for the first time in a state last week, beating Clinton 44 per cent to 37 per cent among likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire. The Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald poll put Vice President Joe Biden, who has not officially entered the race, at third place with nine per cent votes.
The hard-left politician, long confined to the sidelines of mainstream politics, is now proving to be a handful for Clinton, who is rocked by the email controversy. Clinton was said to be using a personal server even for official correspondences during her tenure as secretary of state. US District Judge Emmet Sullivan has ordered the state department to ask the FBI to alert it about information recovered from Clinton's server. The FBI has been given two months to analyse the server and identify whether there was any breach of security protocol.
Clinton has not been forthcoming about questions on the issue and has been keeping the press at bay, despite promises of interviews. It has affected her already vulnerable favourability ratings. According to a CNN poll held last week, the number of voters with an unfavourable view of Clinton has gone up to 55 per cent, up from 47 per cent in April. The email controversy and its fallout could further dent Clinton's numbers. In the key swing states of Colorado, Iowa and Virginia, Clinton has been facing a steady decline in support, especially as questions are being raised about her honesty and leadership.
Yet, Sanders faces nearly insurmountable odds. Even in the New Hampshire poll he topped, more than 60 per cent of the voters said they did not expect Sanders to be the Democratic party's nominee. But throughout his career, Sanders has beaten back odds. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941, to poor Polish immigrants, Sanders did not have an easy childhood. While growing up, handling jobs of a youth counsellor and a carpenter, he also developed a political orientation far different from the two mainstream parties. His first foray into politics was in the late 1950s, when he contested the election to become class president at the local high school. Though he lost, he did not give up. He later contested a number of US senate and governor elections in the 1970s as a candidate of the Liberty Union, a socialist party which has its origins in the anti-Vietnam war protests. Though he lost, it shaped his political agenda as a progressive socialist.
Later, in 1981, Sanders ran for mayor of Burlington, a rural city in Vermont, close to the Canadian border. Contesting the election as an independent, he defeated both Democratic and Republican candidates and became the only mayor in the US who was neither a Democrat nor a Republican. After getting re-elected thrice, he stood and won as Vermont's sole Congressman. He became the junior senator in 2007. Sanders' unique selling point is his anti-establishment worldview and policies, but these make it quite difficult for him to secure the nomination of the Democrats. “It is beyond their [the pundits'] worldview to believe that somebody who is not part of the establishment, somebody who does not have a super PAC [political action committee], somebody who does not have connections with George Soros and all the other billionaires, can actually win,” said Sanders.
He has promised a revamp of the tax system, free tuition at public colleges and universities, a massive infrastructure development programme and an employment scheme for the youth. Sanders hopes to finance his dream projects by imposing a transaction tax on the Wall Street. While this has unnerved the big businesses, Sanders is gaining traction among the young, the unemployed, the students and the blue collar workers. His financial support, too, comes from poor and middle class Americans. The average donation received by his campaign, for instance, is $31.30. And he seems to be copying Barack Obama's successful strategy in the 2008 elections by drawing on the support of grassroot workers and community organisers. The campaign has so far collected $15.2 million in contributions.
On the foreign policy front, too, Sanders is fiercely independent. He had consistently criticised the Iraq war and has not shied away from criticising Israel, something rarely done by US politicians. Sanders was the first senator to decline to attend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the US Congress last March.
The challenges facing Sanders, however, are formidable. As of August 27, in the national poll averages he trails Clinton by 21 per cent. In Iowa, where the Democrats will kick off their primary season next February, Clinton has 52 per cent support compared with 25 per cent for Sanders. And, his support among the African Americans, whose near total support won Obama the Democratic nomination seven years ago, is embarrassingly underwhelming. Finally, being an independent with extreme socialist positions, at least by American standards, he does not share a close relationship with the Democratic national leadership. Yet, he remains hopeful. “I am a United States senator, I did win my last election with 71 per cent of the vote,” said Sanders. “So it's not just like someone just walked in off the street and suddenly they are Hillary Clinton's main challenger.”