Not even “the math” can spoil a Bernie Sanders rally. The democratic-socialist senator from Vermont has outperformed any rational expectation, building an insurgent campaign that has captured 20 states, propelled by more than $210 million in grassroots contributions, averaging under $30 a pop. But with each passing state election – including the ones he’s winning by less-than-blowout margins – Sanders’ long shot grows longer.
At a mid-May Sanders rally in Salem, Oregon, there’s not a hint of gloom among the overflow crowd of 4,000 packing the National Guard Armory auditorium to roar for its champion. The vibe in Salem, Oregon’s capital city, is Phish-show-meets-Portlandia. Fans wear FEEL THE BERN shirts emblazoned with the Grateful Dead’s lightning-bolt logo – tweaked to give the skull Sanders’ untamed hair and glasses.
Party atmosphere aside, there’s a serious undercurrent to this evening’s rally. Jesse Botkin, a former Army specialist who served one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, is searching for a job and working on a computer-science degree on the side. He backs Sanders, he says, because he feels invisible to the political class: “Economically, nobody’s really taking into consideration the actual fucking people.” Botkin knows Sanders is promising too much; his agenda – for socialized health care and tuition-free college, among other lofty goals – is “not realistic.” But for Sanders’ backers, the candidate’s ambition is a feature, not a bug.
Even at this late date, with the threat of a Donald Trump presidency looming, Sanders pulls no punches against Hillary Clinton. His stump speech links her to a “rigged economy” – highlighting “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in contributions to the Clinton campaign by a member of the Walton family, whose Wal-Mart fortune, Sanders says, is richer than the combined wealth of the “bottom 40 percent” of the American people. Transforming jeers into cheers, Sanders demands of the billionaire clan, “Instead of making large campaign contributions to Secretary Clinton, pay your workers a living wage!”
Offstage, out of the spotlight, there’s little glamour to a grassroots presidential campaign. Late in the evening following the Salem rally, Rolling Stone met up with Sanders at his hotel – a no-frills La Quinta behind a Costco near the municipal airport, where rooms start at $89 a night. Pulling up a chair near the make-your-own-waffle station of the hotel’s breakfast bar, Sanders is dressed in a rumpled blue dress shirt and gray slacks. The senator is plainly worn down from the grind of the day: At times during the interview he seems to rest his chin against his chest, as he peers intently over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses.
His body may be out of gas, but Sanders’ mind is fiery and cantankerous. In the course of our 45-minute conversation, he blasts Trump as a “phony” and a “dangerous man.” He also details his long-shot paths to the nomination, which he still believes he can win; his ambitious agenda to transform the Democratic Party into a people-funded movement for the working class; the challenges of having had to run a campaign “by the seat of our pants”; and why he feels sorry for Hillary Clinton – almost.
How does Trump’s emergence as the nominee affect your endgame with Secretary Clinton?
Trump’s emergence should make it clear to Democratic delegates at the convention that Bernie Sanders is the stronger candidate. If you look at all of the national polls out there – virtually all of them – and if you look at all the state polls, we do much better against Trump than does Hillary Clinton.
Looking at the polls you’re talking about, there seems to be a swing vote that could consider your candidacy or Donald Trump’s. You seem to be drawing from the same stream of voters here.
I wouldn’t go so far on that… [Laughs]
To a certain degree … So what is the common denominator among those voters?
Here’s what the common denominator is: To the media’s great shock and to the pundits’ great shock, there are millions of Americans who are very, very angry. And they’re angry because they’re working longer hours for lower wages. They’re angry because they’re working two and three jobs. They’re worried about the future of their children – getting decent jobs and getting homes. And then they look at the leadership of the Democratic Party and the leadership of the Republican Party and they don’t see people addressing – or even paying attention to – their needs. And Trump comes along and starts to blame Mexicans or Muslims or women for the problems facing society. The people are seeing that someone at least is speaking to their anger. And that’s unfortunate. That’s a very ugly approach. But that’s why he’s succeeding.
We are also addressing the anger of the American people. [But] in a constructive way. And that is to say: We’ve got to bring people together. Do the exact opposite of Trump, who is trying to divide us up. To look at the real causes for why the middle class is declining, and develop public policy that addresses the needs of working families.
You’ve described your path to victory now as “narrow.” What does that long shot look like? How would it work?
Here’s how it works. It works in three ways. Number one: For us to win the majority of pledged delegates, we’re going to have to do very, very well in the remaining states. I think we have a shot – a real shot in California. We’re putting a lot of our resources into that. New Jersey, we have a longer shot, but we can do it. So the path to victory is to do extremely well. You can do the arithmetic as well as I could. That’s one path.
The second path is to tell the superdelegates, for example, we just won by 15 points in West Virginia. But it looks like six of the eight superdelegates are gonna vote for Hillary Clinton. We won in Washington state with 70 percent of the vote. Won in New Hampshire with 60 percent of the votes. Yet almost all of the superdelegates are voting for Clinton. And I think the people of the states will make it clear to the superdelegates that they have to respect the wishes of the voters of those states and vote for the candidate who won overwhelming – I’m not talking about one or two points, I’m talking landslide – victories.
The third path to victory: making it clear to the superdelegates that their primary goal is to make sure we defeat Donald Trump. And that I am, in fact, the stronger candidate. And if they want to be risky – voting for Hillary Clinton, who could lose. I’m not saying she will. I’m not saying she can’t defeat Trump. I think she absolutely can beat Trump. But I am the stronger candidate against Trump.
Is this fight to persuade superdelegates to back you over Clinton a test of your philosophy of a political revolution? You’ve got a friendly opposition that you’ve got to convince to do something. And it’s arguably in their electoral self-interest…
No. It’s an inside-the-Democratic Party strategic effort, just trying to get the delegates we need. It’s not the political revolution. The political revolution is waking up millions of people to stand up and fight for their own rights. The political revolution is to bring out 1.2 million people at rallies throughout this country. The political revolution is to bring in more individual campaign contributions at this point in a campaign than any candidate in American history, averaging $27 apiece. A political revolution is in every single primary or caucus we win an overwhelming majority of voters 45 years of age or younger. I wish we were doing better among seniors. And it does blow my mind: I’ve spent my entire life in Congress fighting for seniors, working to expand Social Security. Look at my record. Much better than Clinton’s on senior issues. And she’s beating us badly among seniors. But, important point: When you look at the future of this country and the future of the Democratic Party, we are winning the overwhelming majority of people 45 years of age [and younger]. That’s the political revolution.
You’ve been criticized – including in Rolling Stone – for not putting more specifics behind what the political revolution means as a form of governing—
Can I ask the question? To put it in terms that you were talking about tonight at the rally, I think the critique is not blaming Bernie Sanders for thinking too big, but critiquing Bernie Sanders for sweeping the “unpleasant truths” of our political system right now – the way it ties everything up in knots – “under the rug.” Many people say you’re right as rain on the policy and the objectives, but “Boy, I just don’t think he can do it.”
So how do you do it? What are the specifics that allow you to—
What are the specifics about how I, personally, all by myself, do what nobody in American history has done? And I’m being criticized? Why don’t you do it? Why doesn’t the editor of Rolling Stone do it? Look. You know. With all due respect, that’s an absurd question.
Hopefully, we will end up winning the nomination and winning the general election. If we don’t do that, which is certainly a possibility, we will have accomplished an enormous amount. Could we have done better? Could I do better? Of course. I’m not quite sure what the—
The question is: Assuming you’re president and you’re dealing with a Congress that looks like the one we have today…
Let me just comment on that. If I am elected president, the odds of the Senate remaining Republican would be minimal. You’d have very large turnout helping Democrats up and down the line.
But you’d still likely face Paul Ryan as your negotiating partner. And I’m trying to figure out how you get something like public-college-for-all passed with Paul Ryan as your counterpart. Given that you just said today that they won’t play ball.
To answer that question successfully requires us to think outside of a zero-sum game. You’re saying to me, and it’s a fair question: “Bernie, if you sit down with Paul Ryan and say, ‘Paul, I want a tax on Wall Street speculation to make public colleges and universities tuition-free and to lower student debt,’ the likelihood is that Paul won’t say, ‘Hey, Bernie, why didn’t I think of that? Fantastic idea! Let’s go forward together.'” So what’s the strategy? The strategy – which is unprecedented, and this is where we’re talking about thinking outside the box – is to have a president who actually, vigorously goes around the country and rallies the American people, who are in favor of this idea. This is not some sort of fringe idea. The American people want it. And [the president] rallies the American people and makes it clear that people in the Republican Party – or Democratic Party – who are not sympathetic will pay a political price. That changes the dynamics.
Everything that I campaign on – they’re not fringe ideas. They’re not radical ideas. They’re ideas that the American people support. What we’ve got to do now is close the gap that currently exists between the American people over here [gestures to one side of the table], who have needs and goals and desires, and a Congress [gestures to other side], which in almost every instance is ignoring what the American people want.
Now, is it easy to do? No. How do you do it? It’s a good question. And the truth is, right now I’m a bit busy running for president to have figured that out, other than to tell you that it requires a mass-based political effort bringing millions of people together to stand up and fight back. Unions could play an important role. Environmental groups, women’s groups – groups that are already actively involved. We’re going to bring people together to effectively organize and put pressure on Congress to do the right thing.
Here’s a specific policy question that has generated more heat than light. And that is this question of how you would break up the banks. You drew a lot of heat on this after the Daily News interview. I want to understand, what is your preferred policy mechanism for breaking up the banks? Does Dodd-Frank allow you to do it? Or – are you going to need an act of Congress?
Well, you can do it either way. You can pass the legislation that I’ve introduced, which would require an act of Congress. [Editor’s note: The “Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist” Act would, according to Sanders’ summary of the bill, “require the breakup of JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley within one year of enactment.”] Or you can do it with Dodd-Frank. Or you could do, in a sense, a combination of the two by having a Sanders secretary of treasury, in the first 100 days of our administration, make a determination of which banks – if they failed – would bring systemic damage to the economy, i.e., too big to fail. And then take that information, through section 121 of Dodd-Frank, which is the process by which the Fed and other, uh, other regulatory agencies, work to go forward to breaking up these institutions. In other words: We would be more aggressive. On my own, we would have the secretary of treasury coming in saying, “There are six major banks that, if they fail, would bring systemic damage. Let’s go forward and under section 121 of Dodd-Frank…” That’s what we could do. All right?
If you’re unable to secure the nomination, which is the mathematical likelihood, what are your priorities for the convention: Reforms to the process? Platform planks?
Number one, we want the strongest progressive platform that we can [get]. That would incorporate many of the ideas that we’ve fought for: from Medicare for all; paid family and medical leave; 15-bucks-an-hour minimum wage; very strong language on climate change and a carbon tax; stopping fracking; public colleges and universities tuition-free, et cetera, et cetera.
Number two is, we gotta change the rules that govern the Democratic Party. For one, I think the idea of having closed primaries is a dumb idea.
Because the American people, more and more people, are looking at their politics as outside the Democratic and Republican parties – for a variety of reasons. Some of them think the Democratic Party is too conservative. But whatever, they are independents. Three million people in New York state could not cast a vote in the Democratic or Republican primary for the president of the United States. On the surface, that’s absurd. You really could almost raise legal issues. You’re an independent in New York, you’re paying for that election, it’s conducted by the state. But you can’t vote? Think about it. And from a political point of view, it is absurd, because independents do vote in the general election. So what you’re saying is, “You can’t vote now, and we don’t want you to come into our party. But you can vote later on.” I think that’s dumb. Given that so many young people are independent, we ought to welcome them in.
Issue number two is the whole issue of superdelegates. The deck is stacked in favor of the establishment candidate. If my memory is correct – where’s my wife? [Scans the lobby] She’s not here. I think 450 superdelegates committed to Hillary Clinton before the process began. You need less than 2,400 delegates to win. You have an establishment candidate who goes to the governors and the senators and the Congress people and the money people. It would be very, very hard for the best insurgent candidate – a candidate who did really well among the people – to take that on. Does that make any sense?
Furthermore, we have to deal with the way that the party raises money. It really is quite amazing. And I feel sorry for her in a sense. Hillary Clinton spends an enormous amount of time – look at her schedule – running all over the country. You know what she does? She goes to wealthy people’s homes – and she raises money! Here you are in the middle of a campaign, and she’s out raising money. I’m talking to 10,000 people. She’s out raising money. We have got to figure out a way in which the Democratic Party has the ideology and the positions that excite ordinary people who are prepared to contribute to the Democratic Party or the candidate.
I think to some degree, we have proven in this campaign, having received 7.6 million individual campaign contributions, more than any candidate in history at this point, it can be done. Last night, we were in Sacramento. We had 16,000 people, OK? How many Democrats are out there talking to thousands of people as opposed to being at some rich guy’s house talking to 10 people and walking out with $30,000? This has got to be the goal: to communicate with people, bring people into a political movement. Not just spend your whole life hustling money.
Your fundraising network gives you a tremendous bargaining chip in an endgame in which you’re not the nominee. What kind of promises or concessions might you be looking for from Secretary Clinton for her to start enjoying dividends from those relationships?
It’s premature to talk about. And I don’t think it works quite like that.
Right now, I’m running for president, and that’s what we have to focus on.
Would you seek or accept an invitation to become the vice president?
[Waves hand, shakes head] That’s too early to talk about.
You’ve lit a fire under a young generation of progressives – brought them out in droves to the Democratic Party’s primary process. What does the party have to do to keep them there?
That’s a good question. Unlike all your other dumb questions.
[Laughter, joined by nearby Sanders staffers]
That’s why the media love me. I’m so subtle. Naw, I’m only kidding. You asked a very important question. Let me just give you an example: We were in Denver. We had a rally at 5:00 in the afternoon. We had 18,000 people. People who are passionate about wanting to change America, wanting to be involved in the political process. My guess is that 95 percent of those people had never gone to a Democratic Party meeting – or ever dreamed of going to a Democratic Party meeting. Two hours later, I walk into a [Democratic Party Jefferson-Jackson fundraising] dinner where there are 1,000, maybe 2,000 Democrats, who are contributors to the party, who are lawyers and whatever, local politicians. Older people, upper-middle-class and professional people – who are active in the Democratic Party.
There are two different worlds. So the question is: What happens when that 18,000 marches into that room with 2,000 people? Will they be welcomed? Will the door be open? Will the party hierarchy say, “Thank you for coming in. We need your energy. We need your idealism. C’mon in!”? Or will they say, “Hey, we’ve got a pretty good thing going right now. We don’t need you. We don’t want you”? That’s the challenge that the Democratic Party faces. And I don’t know what the answer is.
Some of the signs from the party are not encouraging…
The danger is, when you bring people in, the whole composition of the Democratic Party begins to change. It becomes much younger. It becomes more working-class. Its emphasis will be less on raising money from Wall Street and big-money interests than on transforming America. That is the dynamic that we’re lookin’ at.
This has been a tough campaign – a good campaign, but tough in many respects. I’ve heard a number of your supporters, more than I would expect, say that they’d rather vote for Trump than Clinton, or that they’d rather sit out the whole thing. What’s your message to those people?
Wrong question. It’s not, “What is my message to them?” It’s not my job to think that I can reach out and say to millions, “Do what I want you to do.” That’s not the way it works. The question that should be asked is, “Why?” I think Trump is incredibly irresponsible. And an incredibly dangerous person. A man who is primarily a showman and an opportunist and an egomaniac. A man who has already significantly damaged this country with his attacks on Mexicans and Muslims and women and veterans and African-Americans and so forth. Very dangerous man. And yet, how come you have millions of people who are prepared to vote for him and not Hillary Clinton? [We got] information from West Virginia just a few hours ago. Apparently, a lot of people who voted for me are not prepared to vote for Hillary Clinton. Why is that?
Many working-class people in this country no longer have faith in establishment politics. And, of course, that’s what Trump has seized upon. He’s a phony and an opportunist. But he has seized upon that and said, “I am not part of the establishment.” He’s only a multibillionaire who has worked with Wall Street and everybody else. But he claims not to be part of the establishment, right? That has created a certain amount of support for him.
I am the son of working-class people. It is incomprehensible to me that you have working-class people vote for a Donald Trump. And yet working-class people in this country – white working-class people – have voted for Republicans for a number of years. Why? Why is that? How does it happen that they vote for candidates who want to send their jobs to China, want to give tax breaks to billionaires and want to cut their health care and their education for their kids? What are they doing? That’s the question we have to deal with.
The answer is not so much what the Republicans are doing. The answer is what the Democrats are not doing. [Taps his finger urgently on the table] They have not convinced the working class of this country that they are prepared to stand up and fight for them. They have convinced African-Americans that they are not a racist party, which is certainly true, as opposed to elements of the Republican Party. That they are prepared to fight for comprehensive immigration reform, which the Republicans certainly will not. They have convinced women that they are prepared to fight for a woman’s right to choose. All of that is excellent – and something, needless to say, that I support. But how come Democrats haven’t convinced the white working class that they are on their side? That’s the very important question that has to be answered.
It must be a source of frustration that you never scored the breakthrough you needed with voters of color. Your platform was geared to the economic interests of many of these voters. What made it difficult to connect?
Let me answer that factually. With the Latino community, there are states where we have won – in Nevada and Colorado. We’re doing very well with Latinos, in general, and very, very well with younger Latinos. What’s been very interesting is that the demographic splits have been less white, black and Latino than they have been on age. By now, if we do not have a majority of African-Americans 35 years and younger, I would be surprised. We are making progress with younger people. The percentage of African-American votes that we get in California will be much higher than we got in the Deep South. On the other hand, I would suspect that Hillary Clinton is beating us 10 to 1 – 10 to 1 – with older black women. So that’s the dynamic. You can explain it as well as I can, but among younger people – white, black, Latino – we are doing well. Among older blacks, especially black women, we are doing very badly.
You’ve resisted taking cheap shots. There might have been times when it would have been politically advantageous to do so. Was that a difficult temptation to resist?
Naw. If you check out my political career, it’s not something I do. I don’t think it was politically disadvantageous. I look at politics very differently than other candidates. You get a good story and make somebody look bad for a day or two. But I think, at the end of the day, there’s a reason my favorability ratings are much higher than Clinton’s or Trump’s. And it’s because people appreciate that we’re trying to talk about the issues that impact them, and not just make personal attacks on people.
On a campaign, a candidate gets so much advice. Who’s been the lodestar – the person or people that you return to for guidance?
The difficulty that we have had in this campaign is that if you have the politics of somebody like a Hillary Clinton, you can bring together a team with a whole lot of political experience, people who have been part of Bill Clinton’s campaigns or administration, or Al Gore’s efforts, pollsters or media people or great surrogates. That is what the establishment Democratic Party has – hundreds of very knowledgeable people. Sophisticated people. I know many of them. I’ve been in the rooms during Obama’s campaigns. I have looked at the chart of literally the 39 different ways Obama can win. “If you lose Wisconsin but you win New Jersey and bup, bup, bup…”
But there aren’t a whole lot of people who understand the day-to-day mechanics of running a presidential campaign, who have history running a campaign for a candidate like myself. You tell me: Where are the democratic-socialist political consultants who have been involved in successful campaigns in recent history? There aren’t any. So we’ve had to put together our own campaign by the seat of our pants. And that’s been hard. We started this campaign with a handful of people from Vermont, people I’ve known for 20 or 30 years. And it’s grown. We’ve used people who have experience in the Democratic Party – the best that we can find. And we have political activists involved. We’ve met some great people over the campaign. A lot of great surrogates, from Nina Turner to Chuy Garcia to Killer Mike to Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon – great people from different walks of life who gravitated into the campaign.
What has this campaign taught you about yourself? Has it changed you?
[Swats at the air with disgust as if batting the words to the ground] Next question!
What have you learned about America?
I’ve learned a lot. And that’s been one of the fun aspects of the campaign, when you go out and talk to people tonight here in Salem, or people in Sacramento, and you see young people, white kids and black kids, Latinos, older people, working-class people. I was in Atlantic City yesterday morning, where the people who work in the casino industry are under tremendous pressure. They’re losing their health care, they’re losing their pensions, their pay has been cut because of bankruptcies – by the way, of Donald Trump, among others – and their willingness to stand up and fight back? It’s a beautiful thing to see. It has been a very moving and gratifying experience to be working with those kinds of folks.
Is there a specific moment that stands out as the worst moment of the campaign?
There are good days and bad days.
A best day – a moment that, when things are tough, you reflect on?
The best day is yet to come. We’ll invite you when I give the inaugural. How’s that?
This is a grind – a crazy day you’ve had, looking at your schedule—
This has been a mild day, let me tell you.
How do you unwind? Do you read, do you listen to music? How do you keep yourself together?
The hardest part is you go weeks sometimes without a day off. If you work 15 or 20 days in a row, and you don’t get a chance to relax or to think or to read or to reflect, it’s tough. Anybody, in any capacity, any job. Also, I have – as a senator and a congressman – always come home to Vermont. That is my touchstone. I love my state. I love the people in my state. My children and grandchildren are in Vermont and New Hampshire [chokes down emotion]. And I don’t see them enough. And that is not a good thing. I miss getting home. When you don’t have that, and go from hotel to hotel for three weeks, it’s hard. It’s hard. But I volunteered to do this. I’m glad we’re doing it. I look forward to winning this damn thing.
In the absence of a win, what does the Sanders movement look like after the 2016 campaign?
That’s a very fair question, but I can’t answer it right now, because that’s not where my mind is.
You’re going for broke now – any full-Bulworth thoughts for us?
I think we’ve got a shot at winning the remaining states. The big challenge, of course, is California. We have 40 people on the ground right now. I suspect more will be coming there. And we intend to run a unique campaign. We’re going to do the rallies that I did in Sacramento all over the state. I suspect that by the time we’re finished in California, I, personally, will have spoken to several hundred thousand people. We’re going to run a campaign that nobody has ever run. Speaking to more people than anyone has ever spoken to. How will it end up? Who the hell knows. But we’re gonna give it our best shot.
Do you have any closing thoughts?
Yeah. And that is the American people are prepared to support real change. The difficulty that we have is not just the objective crises that we face – the disappearing middle class, income and wealth inequality, crumbling infrastructure, lack of universal health care and paid family and medical leave – the whole list of those things. That’s not the major problem. The major problem is that we have an establishment that works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, led by a corporate media, which tries to condition the American people not to believe that we can accomplish those goals – or to even consider that those goals can be part of what American society is about.
You might think that there would be a lot of discussion about why the United States is the only major country on Earth not to provide health care to all people. People might say, “Look at the French system: It stinks, it’s terrible. The Canadian system is terrible; that’s why we don’t want to do it.” But you don’t have that discussion. Why is it that the United States, which spends far more per capita on health care than other nations, why don’t we have a national health care system? Have you seen that debate once in your lifetime? On television?
Not outside the context of your candidacy.
Have you seen a debate coming on where a guy says, “Look, I think the British system is good, and it costs about one third of the American system”? And some American guy comes on and says, “No, I think it’s a terrible system!” and argues it out about why our system is better. Let’s have that debate! There’s two sides to every story. You don’t see that debate.
And my guess is that the majority of the American people do not even know that we are the only major country on Earth without a national health care system. They don’t know that we’re the only major country without guaranteed paid family and medical leave. No one tells them that you’ve got 20 people owning more wealth than the bottom half of America, 150 million people. They don’t know that. Somehow CBS doesn’t have that special. I don’t know why.
You see, that’s what the campaign is about. Our major success so far is in laying out a broad progressive agenda, and forcing ourselves – the media doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. Do you know how many endorsements we have gotten from major media in this country? [Holds up hand forming a zero] They’re much more interested in Trump. For a whole variety of reasons. And if he attacks Hillary Clinton, calls her a bad name, that becomes a major story. If I talk about the disappearing middle class? Not exactly what CNN is interested in hearing, right? OK.
But what we have managed to do in this campaign is, they can’t avoid somebody [like me]. Tonight, we were on CNN – I spoke for a while, for seven minutes. They gotta put us on a little bit. And suddenly people are hearing things they never heard before. And that’s changing consciousness. So what we have got to do is to redefine who we can be as a nation. In a sense, what we are entitled to. What rights we are entitled to as humans. That’s the struggle. And we’re making a little bit of progress.