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2015: The Year Bernie Sanders Became a Political Phenomenon

Bernie Sanders emerged as a national political force this year

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders launched a campaign this year focused on political revolution.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty

The rise of Bernie Sanders has no doubt been one of the more fascinating political stories of 2015 – a year that was not short on fascinating political stories. When he announced his run in the spring, few thought the self-described democratic socialist would be such a strong opponent against Hillary Clinton, but his impact in the race has been significant: He's raised significant money, without relying on super PACs, and has pushed Clinton to the left in very real ways.

Whether you're full-on feeling the Bern, or are just a political observer, it's worth taking a look back at the year Bernie Sanders transformed from "that socialist from Vermont" to a national political phenomenon.

Bernie Sanders

BURLINGTON, VT - MAY 26: Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) delivers remarks while officially announcing his candidacy for the U.S. presidency during an event at Waterfront Park May 26, 2015 in Burlington, Vermont. Sanders will run as a Democrat in the presidential election and is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first challenger for the Democratic nomination. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Win McNamee/Getty

April 29, 2015: Announces Presidential Run, as a Democrat

Sanders, the longest serving Independent in Congress, jumped into the 2016 presidential race in late spring as a Democrat. Though in the coming months he proved to be a formidable challenger to frontrunner Hillary Clinton, raising significant money and pushing Clinton to the left, one of the terms most associated with his April announcement was "long shot."

At a campaign announcement event in Vermont in May, Sanders laid out his platform and noted that "we're going to win…by establishing a very strong grassroots campaign involving millions of people. That's the only way to win."

Bernie Sanders

Darren McCollester/Getty

May 1, 2015: Outpaces GOP Candidates in Initial Fundraising

A day after announcing his run for president, Team Bernie announced it had raised an impressive $1.5 million in 24 hours – "a number that far outpaces what Republican presidential hopefuls posted in their first day," CNN reported at the time.

In what has continued to be a hallmark of the Sanders campaign – which has rejected super PAC funding – those initial donations largely came from small-dollar donors, averaging about $44 each. 

Bernie Sanders

Six months after his election as mayor of Burlington, Vermont's largest city, Bernard Sanders, pictured Sept. 11, 1981 is fighting in court for the right to hire his city appointees and finding tickets on his car when he parks in the mayor's spot. "It hasn't been easy," he says. (AP Photo/Donna Light)

Donna Light/AP

May 26, 2015: ‘Mother Jones’ Digs Up Controversial 1972 Essay

Soon after Sanders jumped into the race, Mother Jones published a profile of the candidate focused on his early life and career. The piece included a reproduction of a bizarre decades-old essay by Sanders called "Man – and Woman," in which Sanders clumsily wrote about a woman's rape fantasies.

The resurfaced essay caused a brief flurry of controversy, as political reporters and feminists alike tried to make sense of it. The Sanders camp was quick to dismiss the piece as a "dumb attempt at dark satire."

Bernie Sanders

FILE - In this Aug. 8, 2015 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. listens at right as Marissa Johnson speaks at left, accompanied by Mara Jacqueline Willaford, as the two women take over the microphone at a rally in downtown Seattle. The women, co-founders of the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter, took over the microphone moments after Sanders began speaking and refused to relinquish it. Sanders eventually left the stage without speaking further and instead waded into the crowd to greet supporters. Rising in political polls, Bernie Sanders is trying to overcome hurdles among black voters who are still learning about him and could help determine whether his insurgent campaign can last. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Elaine Thompson/AP

August 8, 2015: Black Lives Matter Activists Shut Down Campaign Event

At a campaign event in Seattle over the summer, an activist with the Black Lives Matter movement jumped on stage just after Sanders began speaking at the mic and said, "We're shutting this event down, now."

"I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, even with all of these progressives, but you've already done that for me," activist Marissa Johnson told the booing crowd before calling for a moment of silence for Michael Brown. "The biggest grassroots movement in this country right now is Black Lives Matter," she said, referring to Sanders' stated love for grassroots movements.

Sanders stood by quietly while the Black Lives Matter activists spoke, and the campaign event ended. Sanders later released a statement saying he was "disappointed that two people disrupted a rally attended by thousands at which I was invited to speak about fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare."

Bernie Sanders

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

September 6, 2015: Pulls Ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire

After a summer of nipping at Clinton's heels in the polls in critical primary states New Hampshire and Iowa, in early September Sanders found himself with a nine-point lead over Clinton in New Hampshire, and a narrowing gap between the candidates in Iowa, according to an NBC News/Marist poll.

The news of Sanders' lead in New Hampshire was (and continues to be) welcome news to Sanders supporters, who argue the candidate is more electable than many pundits are willing to admit. FiveThirtyEight mastermind Nate Silver, however, has made the case that while Sanders could win New Hampshire and Iowa, he may well lose the rest of the primaries.

Bernie Sanders

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 14: Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at Liberty University's Convocation in Lynchburg, Va., on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Bill Clark/Getty

September 14, 2015: Addresses Evangelicals in Liberty University Speech

In September, Sanders gave a much discussed speech at Liberty University, an evangelical school in Lynchburg, Virginia, in large part to show his willingness to engage in respectful dialogue with conservatives. "I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse," he said in his speech. "It is easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you.…It is is harder, but not less important, to try to communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue."

As MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald wrote at the time, Sanders "likely picked up few supporters with his speech," but "he received a courteous welcome and helped all parties demonstrate their willingness to respect the other side."

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton


October 13, 2015: Tackles Clinton’s “Damn Emails” at First Debate

Sanders had a solid showing at the first Democratic primary debate, hosted by CNN. His performance included what was probably the top moment of the night – and, frankly, of all the debates to date: When the conversation turned to Clinton's emailgate scandal, Sanders said, "Let me say something that may not be great politics. I think the secretary is right…the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails."

The crowd ate it up, applauding wildly and giving Sanders a standing ovation. Though surely no one loved the line more than Hillary Clinton, to whom Sanders gave the gift of dismissing the scandal in the eyes of countless Americans.

Larry David

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Tracy Morgan" Episode 1686 -- Pictured: Larry David as Bernie Sanders during the "Democratic Debate Cold Open" sketch on October 17, 2015 -- (Photo by: Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)


October 17, 2015: Gets the ‘SNL’ Treatment, With Amazing Impression by Larry David

In mid-October, fans of Bernie Sanders and Larry David alike got what they had long hoped for: Larry David, doing Bernie Sanders. The impression was part of a Saturday Night Live cold-open skit parodying the first Democratic debate; it became an instant classic, with lines like, "I don't have a super PAC. I don't even have a backpack! I carry my stuff around loose in my arms, like a professor between classes. I own one pair of underwear – that's it!"

Bernie Sanders; Rolling Stone

November 18, 2015: Is on Cover of ‘Rolling Stone’

Sanders appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in the fall, giving an in-depth interview to contributing editor Tim Dickinson about his chances for beating Hillary Clinton, why he's dedicated his political career to taking on the one percent, and his plans for working with a potentially hostile Congress, if elected. "If we win this election, it will have said that the political revolution is moving forward. In other words: I will not get elected unless there is a huge increase in voter turnout. That's a simple fact," he said. "And I will not get elected unless there are a lot of working-class people, who have turned their backs on the political system, now getting engaged in the system."

Bernie Sanders

FAIRFAX, VA - OCTOBER 28: Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a "National Student Town Hall" at George Mason University October 28, 2015 in Fairfax, Virginia. Sen. Sanders continued to campaign for the Democratic nomination. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Alex Wong/Getty

November 19, 2015: Gives Speech Defining Democratic Socialism

"Let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me," Sanders said, in a highly anticipated November speech at Georgetown University. "It means what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that 'this country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.'"

In laying out his political philosophy, Sanders cited Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance and other programs that were once derided for being socialist but have since "become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class."

Bernie Sanders and Killer Mike

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. left, sits with rapper Killer Mike at The Busy Bee Cafe Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, in Atlanta. Killer Mike is scheduled to introduce Sanders at a campaign event at the Fox Theatre later in the evening. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

David Goldman/AP

November 23, 2015: Hangs Out With Killer Mike

It's no secret that rapper Killer Mike is a Bernie Sanders fan; he endorsed Sanders over the summer, tweeting, "His call 4 the restoration of the voters rights act sealed the deal for me."

But Killer Mike took his affection for Sanders to the next level in November, taking the candidate out for lunch at a beloved Atlanta soul food restaurant and delivering heartfelt remarks at a campaign event later in the day. "I am here as a proponent for a political revolution that says health care is a right of every citizen," he said. "I am here because working class and poor people deserve a chance at economic freedom, and yes, if you work 40 hours a week, you should not be in poverty."