After Bernie Sanders gave a speech effectively conceding the race for the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton on Thursday, but calling for his backers to run for office themselves, over ten thousand of his supporters expressed interest in politics at the local level, signing up on berniesanders.com/win to learn more.
Sanders hailed this “extraordinary” response, but signing up for information about possibly running for office is rather different than the long, hard slog of a political campaign. Indeed, ideological candidates like Ron Paul also encouraged their acolytes to get themselves elected (as convention delegates), but this did not result in a flood of candidates for state and local office. Even if Sanders’ supporters do run, they have a natural disadvantage in local politics.
Nevertheless, the numbers were impressive. Less than 24 hours after Sanders called on his supporters to test the waters, nearly 6,700 people had signed up to run for office. Nearly 11,000 expressed interest in running or helping other Sanders backers to run, according to a press release on Friday.
“I have no doubt that with the energy and enthusiasm our campaign has shown that we can win significant numbers of local and state elections if people are prepared to become involved,” Sanders said. “This will be part of transforming our country from the bottom up.”
The Sanders campaign also admitted that since 2009, Republicans have won about 900 legislative seats in many states across the country. “In fact, the Republican Party now controls 31 state legislatures and controls both the governors’ mansions and statehouses in 23 states.”
In the speech on Thursday, the Vermont senator declared that this political state of affairs is “unacceptable.” His campaign noted that the 6,685 supporters who expressed interest in running for office cover 51 percent of state house districts, 69 percent of state senate districts, and every congressional district in the country.
While the numbers and spread are impressive, however, there is ample reason to doubt the level of commitment most of these people possess — once Sanders himself is off the ticket. In order to express interest, supporters only had to enter their name, email, phone number, and address, and announce whether they intended to run for office or to volunteer for others.
But running for office, even for local office, is very hard, and requires an unusually high level of commitment. And the salient issues are different on a local level.
David Lane, founder and president of the American Renewal Project, an organization which trains pastors to run for local political office, told PJ Media how difficult it is to recruit political candidates. Lane’s organization holds “Issachar Trainings” in order to equip faith leaders to become political leaders.
“In 2015 we had 1,000 or so pastors, plus spouses, attend the Issachar Training events. The Washington Times, you, and others reported last November that 508 were running,” Lane recalled. But “once the dust settled it appears we have 200 running for city council, county commissioner, school board, mayor, or Congress in 2016 and an additional 200 running in 2017-2018.”
Next Page: Why pastors have the edge in local politics, while Sanders supporters lack this advantage.
Even so, pastors have a natural edge that Sanders’ ideological supporters will sorely lack — especially on the local level. Steve Michael, who runs the Issachar Training events for pastors, explained that “local politics is about 1 on 1 connection with the voter and being able to turn your folks out to vote.” Most local elections “come down to narrative, leadership, and organization.”
As the head of a congregation of believers, a pastor has natural access to these vital tools, Michael added. A faith leader “has a built-in constituency,” and “this same congregation in many cases will be helpful towards the grassroots activities, such as door to door” campaigning. Pastors also communicate with other pastors well, and are likely to know other leaders in the local community. “An active pastor is tough to beat due to his network.”
The leader of a religious congregation brings a higher level of engagement to a local election, where turnout can be as low as 3 or 5 percent. When pastors become candidates, they bring in less traditional voters to local elections, energizing people who usually only vote in presidential or congressional elections to vote in municipal elections. This “turns the typical city election on its head.”
Bernie Sanders supporters are different, however. Michael argued that their focus on ideology would contrast with a pastor’s natural advantage of running on his local leadership. While “a pastor running for office is about their individual leadership and personal values, Sanders folks running is about an ideological viewpoint, Socialist Democrat.”
Despite the youth of Sanders’ backers, “their movement isn’t new,” Michael argued. “Sanders himself is a product of the first wave of the attempt to convince his type of candidate to run for office.” Even though Socialist Democrats have run many times in the past, “I’ve yet to see folks with Sanders’ agenda be successful outside of the coasts, this is especially true in the Midwest and South.”
Sanders’ success is also partly explained by the fact of his competition — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is rather less than popular, even among Democrats. The Vermont senator’s campaign “will only change or attempt to change the fabric of the Democratic Party,” Michael argued. It “has little ability to change the larger fabric of American politics.”
Next Page: What Ron Paul’s movement suggests about the future of Bernie Sanders.
In this way, Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign could be seen as a forerunner. The libertarian-minded Republican presidential candidate encouraged the members of his “army” to get elected as delegates to the Republican National Convention (a strategy Cruz would adopt earlier this year). This kind of grassroots activism impacts the political party and the convention — but it is not the same as running for public office, even at a local level.
Nevertheless, Paul’s army seems to have largely dissipated. Like Bernie Sanders, he encouraged disaffected activists and low-propensity voters to get involved in a presidential campaign. While many former Ron Paul staffers worked for his son Rand Paul this year, the younger Paul’s campaign proved more ill-fated than his father’s — and his support failed to become the same sort of energizing movement. Cruz may have picked off a few former Ron Paul backers, but his movement was emphatically his own.
It is not just conservative wishful thinking to see Ron Paul as an example of the fate of Bernie Sanders. The story goes like this: An elderly ideological candidate who riles up young people for a drastic political “revolution,” but who falls short of defeating his party’s establishment, ends up fading into the background — remembered fondly by supporters but failing to build up a lasting movement.
Many Bernie Sanders activists may end up where many Ron Paul activists are today — in non-profit organizations pushing the same sort of political change. And it is entirely possible for both candidates and their supporters to find a natural heir (Mike Lee? Elizabeth Warren?). Nevertheless, there is much reason to be skeptical of this heralded mass movement of Bernie supporters coming into their own.