Bernie Sanders’ drive for the White House began inauspiciously. On April 30, 2015, he stepped on to a patch of grass outside the US Capitol, and found relatively little fanfare.
“We don’t have an endless amount of time, I’ve got to get back,” Mr Sanders, the junior senator from Vermont, said, gesturing at the building behind him. “Let me just say this. This country today, in my view, has more serious crises than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s.” Rattling off a list of problems topped by a broken economy that catered to the very wealthy, Mr Sanders declared: “That type of economics is not only immoral, it is not only wrong, it is unsustainable.”
Though the septuagenarian Mr Sanders had made the same point many times before over the decades, this time, a new audience was ready to listen. Buoyed by young voters and populist sentiment, Mr Sanders changed the debate over issues such as healthcare and pulled the party to the left. He carried 22 states in the primaries and dragged the race out until the summer before agreeing to support his more centrist rival Hillary Clinton in her losing campaign.
Now, the self-described socialist is taking a second shot at the White House, and this time his campaign looks less quixotic. With Iowa caucus voters poised to hold the first big 2020 vote on Monday, Mr Sanders is surging in the polls. In addition to leading Joe Biden in some national polls, he is running ahead of the former vice-president in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the next state in the primary calendar. In modern history, no presidential candidate has won both early votes and not gone on to win the party nomination, while only one candidate — Bill Clinton — has made it to the White House after losing in both.
Mr Sanders’ rise is all the more remarkable given that he was briefly in hospital after an October 1 heart attack and drew relatively little attention last year. In the debates, most rivals trained their attacks on Mr Biden and Mr Sanders’ rival for progressive voters, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. Meanwhile the media has spotlighted new faces such as Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend mayor. “You underestimate Bernie Sanders at your peril,” says Neil Sroka of the progressive group Democracy for America. “This is a guy who got within inches of beating unopposed Democratic royalty.”
Born in 1941, Mr Sanders, the son of a Polish-born paint salesman, grew up in a three-and-a-half room apartment in Brooklyn. He became a civil rights and antiwar activist while attending university. When he moved to mostly rural Vermont at the age of 27, he worked as a carpenter and film-maker and “did not know one end of a cow from the other”, he wrote in his memoir. Married twice, he has one son and three stepchildren.
In 1972, Mr Sanders received just 1 per cent of the vote in his first run for governor. Multiple failed campaigns later, he was elected mayor of Burlington, the state’s capital, in 1981. He won Vermont’s lone seat in the US House of Representatives nine years later and won one of its two Senate seats in 2006.
In Congress, Mr Sanders, who sits as an independent even though he votes with the Democrats, has often cut a solitary figure. “Nobody likes him,” Mrs Clinton said recently. “Nobody wants to work with him. He got nothing done.”
Mr Sanders’ fans have dismissed that remark as sour grapes and note that even if other senators don’t like him, lots of voters do. They also like his policies, which include universal healthcare, free college and a Green New Deal spending plan to revamp the US economy and combat climate change.
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Since announcing his 2020 bid, he has raised more than $96m in the form of 5m separate donations, top among the Democrats. And his donor base continues to climb: the campaign received more than 900,000 donations in December alone, including contributions from 40,000 new donors on a single day.
Polling suggests Mr Sanders’ support in Iowa is particularly firm — far more of his supporters report being “extremely enthusiastic” than those of other candidates. That fervour has stoked complaints that their enthusiasm can spill over into bullying and online aggression, particularly by so-called “Bernie Bros” the young, white men who make up part of his fan base.
Krystal Ball, a progressive pundit who supported Mr Sanders in 2016, says the stereotype is unfair. She argues that Mr Sanders’ base has become more diverse as he becomes better known, particularly among Latinos and other minority communities.
The October heart attack Mr Sanders suffered while campaigning in Las Vegas might have slowed him down — he emerged from a three-day hospital stay with two new stents. Instead, he appears to have only gathered steam, thanks in part to endorsements from progressives including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the celebrity millennial congresswoman.
Moderates warn that Mr Sanders would be a disastrous nominee because of his past support for leftist groups, such as the Marxist Socialist Workers party, his mixed record on gun-control and claims that he has made positive comments about controversial populist figures, such as the segregationist George Wallace. “He has been in public life for 50 years; he has done and said things that are incredibly radical,” says Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist think-tank Third Way.
Yet his opponents are treating the senator with a new seriousness. “It seemed like he was fading,” Mr Bennett says, “and then he charged back”.