Bernie Sanders was notorious in 2016 for refusing to ask Democratic power brokers for their support. While Hillary and Bill Clinton were lighting up their phone lines, elected officials grumbled they never heard from Sanders or his campaign.
He also lacked the campaign infrastructure to compensate: “We had no political shop,” said Mark Longabaugh, one of Sanders’ top strategists that year.
This time around, the candidate with an aversion to schmoozing and a reputation as a loner in the Senate is bowing to a side of politics he’s long despised. Sanders is making dozens of calls each week to elected officials, labor leaders and party chiefs, according to his aides. In between his rallies, he regularly meets with politicians behind closed doors. And surrogates, including Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the co-chairman of his campaign, are aggressively courting House members.
All of that is standard fare for a top-tier presidential campaign, but it represents a major shift for Sanders. His willingness to step up his efforts to win institutional support is the latest sign that he believes that shunning the Democratic establishment might work for a long-shot outsider campaign, but won’t cut it if he truly wants to win the nomination.
"He is trying to talk to anyone and everyone who he thinks might have a desire to support the campaign at some point in time,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ 2020 campaign manager. “We want to make sure the doors are open.”
Sanders’ willingness to work the phones isn’t the only indication he’s running a more traditional in-it-to-win-it campaign. He recently hired a fundraiser — a position he didn’t have in his 2016 bid — and is planning in-person “grassroots” fundraisers that could draw larger donors. In addition to his standard big rallies, Sanders is mixing in more intimate town halls in Iowa, where voters demand up-close-and-personal contact with candidates. And he has at times weaved his life’s story into his speeches, another standard campaign practice that he eschewed four years ago.
Compared with himself in 2016, when he rarely courted influential politicos, Sanders is a chatterbox these days. The people who’ve received his calls say he sometimes talks about why he’s the best person to beat President Donald Trump. Other times he veers toward policy. Occasionally, if he’s known the person long enough, he’ll ask for an endorsement.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is one of the people who’s heard from Sanders. They appeared together last month at an Ohio town hall sponsored by her union, which endorsed Clinton in 2016.
“Look, Bernie really wants to be president. And I think what he’s doing is the work of relationship-building,” Weingarten said. "We’re far away from an endorsement and there’s a lot of other [candidates] in the race … but I do think that Bernie has spent time not only being the iconoclast he is and being the independent soul he is, but also working with allies to work for a better country.”
Sanders is wooing natural allies as well as people unlikely to get on board his campaign. He’s placed calls to everyone from Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry to United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, according to people familiar with the conversations. Fetterman, a progressive, backed Sanders in 2016; the SEIU sided with Clinton, though a faction of the union’s members supported Sanders. And Gerard’s members showed up in force to Joe Biden’s campaign kickoff.
One of the more promising places Sanders has looked for support is the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which he helped create in 1991. Khanna, a member of the group, said he’s spoken to about 10 others in the caucus about Sanders’ campaign and his hope they’ll endorse it.
Sanders aides say the strategy isn’t to clinch the most endorsements: He just needs enough that he can point to a respectable level of support from the party and not be written off as too far outside the mainstream.
"He was completely shut out of any institutional support in 2016,” Khanna said. “Now, I believe, he will have a critical mass of institutional support to get his message out and win the race. He doesn’t need to have the most institutional support. He just needs to have enough."
Even if Sanders could persuade some power brokers to hold off on endorsing any candidate in the primary, particularly if they lean toward Biden, it would be something of a victory.
In many of his calls, Sanders makes the electability argument — that he can take down Trump in a general election — a big question mark in the eyes of some Democrats given his democratic-socialist profile.
Some Democrats who’ve watched Sanders since 2016 said that a major difference between now and then is he has a built-out political team helping him seek endorsements. His political director is Analilia Mejia, a former New Jersey political director of an SEIU local, and his deputy political director is Sarah Badawi, who worked as a top strategist at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
The change hasn’t gone unnoticed. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said Sanders showed up to a 2015 meeting with top union leaders by himself. Typically, presidential candidates come with at least a few aides in tow.
“It’s my view that he had to spend a lot more energy himself on the campaign itself previously,” Nelson said.
Jeff Weaver, a longtime adviser to Sanders who managed his campaign in 2016, said the leftward shift of the Democratic Party has made more people receptive to Sanders’ outreach.
“Last campaign, Bernie Sanders started as a relatively unknown person on the national stage. Secretary Clinton was widely known and had locked up the support not just of national Democrats but of party folks in the states as well,” he said. “Now it’s a new day. The party has changed dramatically in the last four years, to say the least, and there’s a lot more openness to Bernie.”
So far, Sanders is in the middle of the pack in the race for big-name endorsements, trailing other top-tier contenders such as Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a fellow Vermont Democrat who backed Clinton in 2016, endorsed Sanders the day he launched his second campaign. Leahy said Sanders didn’t approach him in 2016 because he had already made clear he was behind Clinton. Sanders is also backed by five members of the Democratic National Committee, as well as Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Vermont Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman.
Sanders has also announced 15 endorsements from state lawmakers in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and his staff has said it will unveil supporters in Iowa and Nevada in the future.
Even if the Democratic leaders they’re courting don’t support Sanders now, his allies hope the efforts will ease tensions should he become the nominee. Sanders is polling second, behind only Biden, in most surveys.
"When you’re going to want to pull the party together, it makes it much easier because you’ve established relationships,” Longabaugh said. “They don’t see you as a three-headed monster anymore.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.
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