Bernie Sanders is already setting his sights on President Donald Trump by making a pitch to voters in the three “blue wall” states that decided the last election and will likely be pivotal again in 2020.
During weekend rallies in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — states that won Trump the White House by a total of less than 80,000 votes — Sanders repeatedly painted the president as a “liar” who swindled working class Americans when he promised to fight for them.
“The biggest lie he told was that he was going to stand up for working families and take on the establishment. That was a monstrous lie,” Sanders said Sunday in Pittsburgh, accusing the president of breaking promises to fight for universal health care, oppose cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, tax the wealthy and reduce the trade deficit.
Visiting the Rust Belt this early is a show of power for Sanders, putting his 17 Democratic rivals on notice that he has the money, name recognition and front-runner status to look past the initial primary states. Michigan doesn’t vote until mid-March, while Wisconsin and Pennsylvania vote in April. Sanders, who enjoys a cult-like base of support built during his 2016 run for the nomination, trails in polls only to former Vice President Joe Biden, who isn’t yet a candidate.
“Donald Trump campaigned as fake Bernie Sanders. And the way to beat him is with real Bernie Sanders,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, said in an interview.
Trump was the first Republican since the 1980s to win all three of these crucial states, and Democrats’ best hope of defeating him runs through the region’s once-vibrant industrial sector, where many working class Americans have seen their economic fortunes wane in an era of globalization and automation.
Now Sanders is betting that the populist message he brought to the Democratic primary in 2016 will win over some of the same voters who previously supported Trump.
“Donald Trump won by stealing a lot of Bernie Sanders’ language and policies and selling them to the American public,” Shakir said. “It was a very populist appeal taken directly out of how Bernie Sanders talked about Hillary Clinton during the primary” in 2016.
When Trump released a statement last week bashing the senator’s bill for a “Medicare for all” national health insurance plan, it drew a swift response from the Vermont senator, giving Americans a taste of what a general election match-up between the two would look like, eleven months before the Democratic contest officially begins.
Trump has taken to calling Sanders “crazy Bernie” and attacking his self-proclaimed socialist label, which other 2020 Democrats universally reject. Many surveys show Americans disapprove of the label and a variety of Democratic strategists worry it’ll be toxic to middle-of-the-road voters in a presidential election.
Shakir insisted that Trump will call any Democratic nominee a socialist in the 2020 campaign and that Sanders, unlike his primary rivals, will lean into the fight.
Numerous Sanders rally-goers said they weren’t interested in any other Democratic candidates.
“He’s the only progressive in the Democratic Party who’s a true progressive,” said Donna Dunaj, 76, who’s based in Warren, Michigan. “With Bernie, he’s the one who’s going to get people back to work.”
Sanders, 77, faces stiff competition from a large Democratic primary field teeming with fresh faces that look like the party’s rising base of young people, non-white voters and women. His unfavorable ratings are higher than most of his rivals, as many in the party believe his attacks on Clinton contributed to Trump’s victory. Some Democrats continue to resent his history as an independent, while others worry that nominating a far-left figure will doom them to defeat.
Fighting for third place behind Biden and Sanders in national surveys are California Senator Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke of Texas and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. O’Rourke also made a campaign swing through Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“I’m all in favor of someone with more youth and vitality than some of the ones who have already run for president,” said 73-year-old Carol Lytle of Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest in February. “I’d also like to have a woman be our next president.”
At an O’Rourke meet-and-greet in Storm Lake, Lytle said she won’t support Sanders or Biden. “I think their time has come and gone. I’m all for some new ideas new blood,” she said.
In conversations at his Midwestern rallies over the weekend, many Sanders supporters said they see the ideological choice not as liberal versus conservative but as financial elites versus workers. Some voted for the Green Party’s Jill Stein in 2016 because they saw Clinton as firmly on the side of the financial elite. Some even understood the appeal of Trump in the Rust Belt.
“Trump said a lot of good things for working people,” said Stephen Palffy, a 52-year-old school teacher who lives just outside Detroit. “I knew he wasn’t going to do it.”
Sanders called on Trump to reject his renegotiated NAFTA deal, arguing on Saturday that it‘s too weak to stop American jobs from going to Mexico after the president vowed in 2016 to bring back lost manufacturing jobs.
“There’s still a lot of anger. NAFTA killed us. NAFTA absolutely killed us. And we’ve been getting the same song and dance,” said 60-year-old Roger Jablonski of Royal Oak, Michigan, who was carrying a Sanders 2020 sign.
Michiganders backed Trump in 2016 because “they just wanted change,” he said.
Jablonski said he broke his hip during an accident while campaigning for Sanders in 2016, “and I’ll break it again.” He said he voted for Stein last time because he thought Clinton would carry Michigan. “If I knew Trump was gonna win the state I would’ve voted for her,” he said of Clinton.
Sanders, he insisted, would more credibly tap into that desire for change because he has spent three decades fighting corporate power.
In Macomb County, Michigan on Saturday, Sanders took credit for popularizing ideas like single payer health insurance and a $15 minimum wage, which were seen as radical when first started running for president in 2015 but have gained the support of many prominent Democrats. Four rivals have endorsed his “Medicare For All Act,” introduced last week, to collapse most health insurance into the Medicare program.
“Now our job is to complete what we started,” Sanders said. “We’re going to turn our vision and our progressive ideals into realty.”
An attendee in the Michigan crowd interrupted him to shout, “The revolution lives!”
(Updates to add O’Rourke’s travel in 15th paragraph. An earlier version of this story was corrected to remove reference to Sanders being first candidate to visit all three states in first paragraph.)