When Bernie Sanders addresses throngs of supporters who gather at his rallies, the divisions that plague the Democratic Party can feel far away. The Vermont senator speaks of building a “mutliracial, mutli-generational movement” that will cut through economic divides, catapult him into the White House and transform the nation.
Some of the highest-profile surrogates campaigning on his behalf are less sanguine.
Speaking at a concert for Sanders on Friday night, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., led sustained booing from the stage at the mention of Hillary Clinton, his rival in the 2016 primary. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat who has campaigned for Sanders across Iowa, says the Democratic establishment should conform to the progressive movement, not the other way around. “We aren’t pushing the party left, we are bringing the party home,” she says.
Then there’s filmmaker Michael Moore, who fires up Sanders crowds by bashing “corporate Democrats” and suggesting that the party’s own leadership may swoop in and steal the 2020 nomination from Sanders in a way that some of the senator’s supporters believe it did in 2016.
Such episodes demonstrate the tension at the heart of Sanders’ campaign as he shows signs of strength heading into Monday’s caucuses. While the self-described democratic socialist has never backed away from his call for political revolution, the visions of unity he also articulates are sometimes at odds with the rhetoric espoused by his supporters. The dynamic is playing out at a precarious time for the Democratic Party, which will have to unite to unseat President Donald Trump.
“The Sanders supporters are demanding that everybody unite behind Bernie, but if they want Democrats to unite behind Bernie they have to be ready to unite behind the moderate Democrats,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “And they’ve not yet shown that they will do that. They’ve not shown that, if things don’t go their way, they won’t just stay home in November.”
Sanders is bunched near the top of many polls in Iowa with progressive rival Elizabeth Warren and with former Vice President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who represent the moderate wing of the party, along with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. If he were to win the caucuses and also notch a victory in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Feb. 11, Sanders will face growing pressure to show his campaign will be open to all factions of the party.