The lessons Bernie Sanders learned from 2016

With lumps taken and lessons learned, the Vermont senator is ready to try this again.

Sanders first presidential campaign transformed the Democratic party and taught the Vermont senator valuable lessons he's bringing into 2020. CREDIT: Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Sanders first presidential campaign transformed the Democratic party and taught the Vermont senator valuable lessons he's bringing into 2020. CREDIT: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

On April 30, 2015, the day Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced his first ever presidential run, more than three-quarters of the electorate had no idea who he was.

Sanders, of course, went on to give former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the 2016 Democratic party primaries. His rallies attracted both enormous crowds and a healthy supply of young voters, for whom he articulated — in a thick Brooklyn accent — a vision of a government that he said would work for everybody, not just millionaires and billionaires.

Four years later and after much speculation, Sanders announced he is officially entering the 2020 Democratic primary. Now, according to Gallup, he is the rare candidate who is almost universally known.

In the time between these two primary seasons, much ink has been spilled in the service of chronicling the way Sanders has transformed the Democratic Party, where the key policy ideas of his 2016 run — such as Medicare for All, free college tuition, and a $15 minimum wage — have become more widely embraced and more deeply rooted among its members. Much less attention had been paid, however, to the way that 2016 race has transformed Sanders.


But people close to Sanders say that in the past few years, the senator has endeavored to learn from his first foray into presidential politics. He has begun to think more about racial justice and its connections to his economic message. He’s become much more comfortable with the daily work of campaigning and has bought into the value of polling. Moreover, he’s spent a considerable amount of time building bridges with longtime political operatives and activists outside of his inner circle, they say.

The 2016 campaign, as one former aide told ThinkProgress, was like “putting the plane together as we flew.” This year the campaign won’t be as improvisatory. Rather, there will be a comprehensive plan that runs “through Iowa, beyond New Hampshire, past Super Tuesday, all the way until the general election,” said the former aide, who, like several others, requested anonymity to speak freely about Sanders. The Sanders campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

One sign of Sanders’ growth as a candidate is his selection of Faiz Shakir to serve as campaign manager, said former aides and advisers. Hiring Shakir, who most recently was national politics director for the American Civil Liberties Union and previously was the editor of ThinkProgress, demonstrates a fresh dedication to a more expansive campaign platform and a more diverse team than in 2016, they said.

The early going hasn’t been free of stumbles, however. Sanders, in an interview with Vermont Public Radio on Tuesday, rankled many progressive activists and former Clinton backers when he said, “We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age. I mean, I think we have got to try to move us toward a nondiscriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for.”

Sanders has also had to provide assurances that his rebooted campaign will be more professionally structured after a number of former staffers came forward with allegations of sexual harassment at the hands of a top Sanders staffer during the 2016 campaign. In the wake of the allegations, Sanders went on CNN in January promising to “do better next time.” To that end, he announced that his 2020 campaign would have strict rules to prevent workplace harassment.


“We are going to have the strongest protocols to protect women and anybody else against any form of harassment,” he told CBS. “We are going to be training every employee who works for us, and we’re going to give people who feel they’ve been harassed the opportunity to talk to people outside of the campaign.”

One adviser told ThinkProgress that Sanders recently offered an apology to to members of his inner circle for the way he micromanaged certain aspects of the 2016 campaign. That adviser said the candidate has grown more open to listening, particularly on issues like race.

Sanders has changed in other ways, according to former aides. For instance, he used to bristle at having to discuss polling but now sees its value. And he has worked hard to sharpen his foreign-policy chops — an area in which he repeatedly stumbled in 2016 debates — and plans to articulate an expansive, progressive worldview, one former aide said.

That change is apparent in these early days of Sanders’ campaign. While his 2016 campaign website did not even have a foreign policy section, Sanders went so far as to touch on foreign policy in his presidential announcement, touting his work to end the United States’ involvement in Yemen.

Perhaps the starkest difference between Sanders’ first presidential campaign and this one comes in the form of money: In the 24 hours after his announcement, he raised close to $6 million, blowing his early rivals for the Democratic nomination out of the water. Not only does the initial cash haul demonstrate Sanders’ overwhelming name recognition, it demonstrates that he’s an immediate contender, rather than the dark-horse candidate he was last time around. 

But for those close to Sanders — and for many of his most ardent supporters — the most exciting aspect of his entrance into the 2020 race are all the things that will stay the same. And they’re hopeful that despite Sanders’ elevation in the pecking order, he will continue to play the role of the outsider and pull the rest of the field — and the national conversation about public policy — even further to the left than he already has.


“I think his policies… are going to be the gold standard against which these other campaigns are going to be measured,” one former aide said, noting in particular Sanders’ work on economic and environmental issues. “He’s the only one generating real new ideas. To the extent that [the rest of the candidates] have new ideas, they’re all sort of watered down versions of his — not to put too fine a point on it.”