Bernie Sanders might just be the song of the summer.
The longtime Independent Vermont senator and candidate for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination is undeniably having a moment, even managing to steal some of the spotlight from perennial controversy-chaser Donald Trump.
Since July, 100,000 people have showed up at Sanders rallies around the country, the most for any candidate. An informal poll at the Iowa State Fair showed Sanders polling ahead of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He’d narrowed the gap in New Hampshire between him and Clinton to six percentage points in a recent poll, a difference within the poll’s margin of error.
Recently seen as the “I like him, but he can’t win” guy, Sanders has seen a surge unlike that of any other candidate. But what is it about the self-described “democratic socialist” and his quirky brand of populism that has made him the political flavor of the week?
His vote speaks louder than his words
Most candidates seem to have spent most of their time stumping, even before the race began, but fans of Sanders appreciate that his voting record has been remarkably consistent throughout the years. Chances are, if Bernie has said he believes something, he has the votes to back that up.
You can check out his voting record on specific issues here.
His beliefs align more closely with those common among younger generations
Sanders was advocating for universal health care before it was cool, has a strong track record in Congress on civil rights, is pro-choice and thinks the U.S. is too quick to jump into international conflict. None of that is universally supported by 18- to 34-year-olds, of course, but in general, the younger the voter, the more likely he or she is to support such issues.
Here’s the age breakdown of people who think it’s the government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage, based on a Gallup poll late last year:
Here’s the same breakdown for people who identify as being pro-choice, based on a Gallup poll from May:
- 18-34: 53%
- 35-55: 52%
- 55+: 47%
He seems authentic
Someone who proudly calls himself a socialist isn't going to win many friends among conservatives, but he's stuck to his stances on major issues over the years without shifting based on public opinion — something many of his fans find refreshing after years of back-and-forth among top politicians over everything from the war in Iraq to gay marriage.
He supports the working classes
Sanders has a track record of supporting the lower and middle classes, supporting things like paternity leave, reducing student debt, raising minimum wage and mandatory vacation and sick leave.
At a recent gathering in Wisconsin, Sanders took issue with wealth inequality in the U.S., calling it “the great moral issue of our time.”
“It is the great economic issue of our time and it is the great political issue of our time,” he said. "Let me be as clear as I can be: There is something profoundly wrong when today, the top one-tenth of 1 percent own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent."
Politifact rated that statement “mostly true,” saying the claim is accurate but could use more data to back it up.
Is he as good as he seems?
None of that is to say Sanders is without his own problems — the senator hasn’t often been subjected to the same level of scrutiny as someone like Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio. He may be willing to put his vote where his mouth is in most areas, but for a candidate who seemingly prides himself on picking a route and sticking to it, he has a unpredictable track record on gun control. As coverage of one mass shooting seems to barely have time to die down before another makes headlines — Mass Shooting Tracker counts 225 so far in 2015 — the gun control question isn’t going away anytime soon.
And this is perhaps where Sanders’ record is the most erratic. On the pro-gun side, he didn’t support the Brady Bill, which instituted a five-day waiting period and federal background checks, voted to prohibit foreign or United Nations aid to be used for gun control and voted to allow firearms on checked bags on Amtrak.
He also voted in 2005 to keep gun manufacturers from being sued for negligence when people commit crimes with their guns.
On the other hand, he’s voted for universal background checks and an assault weapons ban — and the NRA regularly gives him low ratings on gun-friendliness. His record is fairly moderate, but the bigger problem here may be that he’s avoided making definitive statements on gun control to this point.
Voters looking for a strong stance on gun control may find themselves looking elsewhere. And while Sanders has a strong civil rights record, many voters are looking for some indication he’d be willing to take big action on the issue of racism in America.
Last week, shortly after Sanders took the stage in Seattle at a rally for Social Security, protesters from the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter jumped on stage, grabbed the microphone and demanded the senator take action on police reform. For someone who portrays himself as the most progressive option voters have, he seems to be having a difficult time attracting minority voters. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last month found that Sanders still has more white supporters than black or Hispanic supporters, unlike Hillary Clinton, whose numbers are the opposite. And a Gallup poll last month found that only 25 percent of nonwhite Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters view Sanders favorably. That number was 80 percent for Clinton.
The problem might be less Sanders-specific and more that many believe that white progressives have historically done little to tackle racial injustice in the U.S.
Ultimately, Sanders’ track record on his stated values is second to no other candidate. The question is whether he can actually make things happen. Raising taxes on the wealthy, raising minimum wage, free public college and single-payer healthcare systems would all require significant cooperation from what will likely be a Republican Congress, and Congress has rarely shown a willingness to cooperate with anyone.