Holding his first campaign rally in nearly three weeks after suffering a heart attack, Bernie Sanders had a simple message for his supporters in Long Island City on Saturday: “Bernie’s back.”
The Queens rally — at which 25,000 people gathered, according to Mr Sanders’ campaign — was meant to show the 78-year-old Vermont senator’s eagerness to reboot his bid to be the Democrat to face Donald Trump in next year’s US presidential election. Introduced by firebrand New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he vowed to resume the fight against “corporate greed” with five events scheduled over one 24-hour period in Iowa this week.
“I am more than ready to take on the greed and corruption of the corporate elite and their apologists,” the self-declared socialist told the crowd. “And I am more ready than ever to create a government based on the principles of justice.”
Mr Sanders’ health scare called into question whether he could continue on the campaign trail, just as Elizabeth Warren, the other progressive in the competition, emerged as one of the frontrunners. But the last week has shown that the other Democratic candidates should not count Mr Sanders out just yet.
Despite eschewing corporate donations and traditional big money, Mr Sanders raised $25.3m in the third quarter, more than the other contenders, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Mr Sanders also has the largest war chest, with $33.7m cash on hand, compared with Ms Warren’s $25.7m and Joe Biden’s $9m.
After fighting questions over his age in a live televised Democratic debate on Tuesday — he is the oldest candidate in the race — he secured the backing of 30-year-old Ms Ocasio-Cortez, a political hero for young, leftwing voters since becoming the youngest woman elected to Congress last November.
“You could argue that he may have had the best week of anybody,” said Robert Wolf, a Democratic donor who has not supported Mr Sanders’ presidential bid. “He had a very strong debate, it may have been his best one. He showed that he is healthy. His fundraising and cash on hand is nothing short of off the charts. And the AOC backing is a home run.”
Mr Sanders, who challenged Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, draws support from a core base of left-leaning voters. On Saturday, rally goers praised his “Medicare for All” plan, which would in effect eliminate private healthcare insurance, and his support for Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” plan to tackle climate change.
Mr Sanders is “saying we actually need a massive political transformation in this country”, said Ajay Chaudhary, executive director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. “He has a very clear line on these issues, that I do think matter . . . to the vast majority of people in this country.”
But this time Mr Sanders has struggled to gain ground in a more crowded field both in national polls and in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Ms Warren has attracted growing levels of support from left-leaning and more moderate voters. Polls compiled by RealClearPolitics estimate Mr Sanders’ support at 15 per cent in Iowa, compared with 21.7 per cent for Mr Biden and 22.3 per cent for Ms Warren. In recent days, Mr Sanders has distanced himself from the latter, labelling the Massachusetts senator “a capitalist” in an interview with ABC News last week.
According to the latest Morning Consult poll, people planning to vote for Mr Sanders were also just as likely to name the more centrist Mr Biden as their second choice as they were to name Ms Warren.
Political analysts say Mr Sanders benefited in 2016 — when he won primaries and caucuses in 22 states — from Democrats’ disdain for Mrs Clinton, and from the comparatively narrower field. In 2016, Mrs Clinton and Mr Sanders were the only Democrats in the running after the Iowa caucuses. Today, there are 20 Democrats in the race.
Listen to the new weekly podcast from Gideon Rachman, the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist, and listen in on his conversations with the decision-makers and thinkers from all over the globe who are shaping world affairs
“There is much more competition this time around, and that makes his prospects that much harder,” said Josh Putnam, a political scientist who runs the elections blog FrontloadingHQ. “He emerged in 2016 as the alternative to Clinton. He’s not the alternative any more.”
Mr Sanders “confused his support in 2016 as being pro-Bernie as opposed to being anti-Hillary, which is why he came in a close second in Iowa in 2016 and now doesn’t even have half that support”, noted a Democratic strategist who worked on Mrs Clinton’s presidential campaign and who did not want to be identified.
But many supporters on Saturday insisted that Mr Sanders’ anti-establishment movement was unlikely to dim in this election cycle.
Tino Sanchez, a scientist who made the 370km drive from Rockville, Maryland, to attend the rally, said: “I guess on paper [Mr Sanders] was fighting against one candidate [in 2016], but really he was fighting against the corporate media, he was fighting against everyone that just didn’t think he belonged in the Democratic party, let alone running this country.”