Two thirds of the way into one of the most unlikely political insurgencies of modern times, the once electrifying campaign to elect Bernie Sanders as Democratic nominee for president is looking for a new jolt of energy from Saturday’s second television debate.
But with poll numbers flat lining in the face of Hillary Clinton’s invigorated electoral machine, those close to team Bernie privately concede the momentum they really need to recapture can only come now from victories in early-voting states – particularly Iowa and New Hampshire.
Interviews with some of those working on the ground suggest the emergence of a tightly focused strategy that is a far cry from the heady days of packed rallies in liberal bastions across the country over the summer.
The hope, they say, is that it will be defeating former secretary of state Clinton in one – or preferably both – of the first two voting states that really makes Senator Sanders famous among ordinary Democratic voters.
“Name recognition is good among college students and self-identified progressives and party activists, which are not a majority by any stretch, but when you get beyond that it is very low,” said one senior adviser who spoke anonymously to the Guardian about conditions outside New Hampshire and Iowa.
Bernie Sanders has a big hill to climb … people don’t yet know who he is and what he stands for
Anonymous senior Democratic adviser
“Bernie Sanders has a big hill to climb … people don’t yet know who he is and what he stands for.”
That is not to suggest the nationwide excitement among progressives has not been without benefit. The senator’s promise to take on the political and corporate establishment for the benefit of ordinary Americans has been a particular boost to his fundraising, where the volume of small donations from supporters is described as “shockingly good”.
Though there is plenty in the bank now to fight the early states, the hope is this will be bolstered by another wave of donations once the primaries are under way that can sustain the campaign through the extremely expensive process of competing in the 12 states voting on 1 March, known as Super Tuesday.
“If he comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire a winner, that could be a $20m week to him, that’s what could happen online,” said the senior adviser. “Those amounts are needed to keep him competitive in Super Tuesday states.
“I think [the Democratic establishment] planned and scheduled that as Clinton’s breakwater: where any challenger like Bernie would see his boat smashed to pieces, because they wouldn’t have the deep pockets to get past that one.”
Despite Clinton’s dominance of the party establishment, Sanders is picking up endorsements – ranging from the postal workers union to actor Ryan Gosling and swing state figures such as former Ohio state senator Nina Turner just in recent days.
But Sanders still lacks the network of party support that Clinton can draw upon, which is compounded by his need to remain in Washington for key votes in Congress, such as the battle to shut down Guantánamo Bay, where he was one of only three senators to back President Obama this week.
“He’s still got his day job in the US Senate and that creates scheduling challenges,” explained the senior adviser. “Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, he’s pretty much got to be in Washington or he will have an optics problem.
“He’ll get some time off over Christmas and Thanksgiving to travel but he has to make a lot of trips and that’s going to be hard.”
Even in Iowa, where Sanders has spent 23 days already at 55 separate campaign events, there is a feeling that the campaign needs to break all the rules of state politics to overcome the in-built advantages for a party favourite like Hillary.
Another Sanders campaign official there said the big hope was that Sanders’ energy would bring an unusually high turnout to the Iowa caucuses on 1 February – full of atypical caucus-goers who can drown out the voices of the more conservative mainstream.
Even the senator’s critics in the state concede he has brought new energy to the caucus, which proved a humiliating battleground for Clinton during her a battle against Obama in 2008.
“Sanders’ role was really to put a lot of fire in belly of Democratic activists which is what he’s done and bring people to the caucuses that would not have attended if he wasn’t in the race,” said Jack Hatch, the Democratic nominee for governor in Iowa in 2014.
“His value is extraordinary … but in terms of raw numbers, he’s going to maximize his numbers right now.”
Such party figures are increasingly sceptical whether support can grow from here, or even if his success in shifting Clinton onto more progressive ground can last.
“People are beginning to see that Bernie Sanders has a couple of songs in his repertoire and that’s not going any further,” claimed Hatch. “They also know Sanders has moved Clinton to the left. She has not become much more of a leftist, but has become much more vocal on issues where she was quiet before.”
Inside the Sanders campaign morale remains much higher. The fervent excitement among core supporters is also proving a major advantage as the campaign shifts to knocking on doors and word-of-mouth to spread its message.
Campaign leaders, who did not respond to requests for on-the-record interviews, like to focus on how far he has come as much as how far he still has to go.
“Look, we started off six months ago,” the senator told CNN last Sunday. “What did the media consider Bernie Sanders? A fringe candidate. Right? Not a serious candidate. Be honest; that was the case.
“Now you are saying, ‘You haven’t quite won this thing yet.’ That tells me we have made real progress in six months.”
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