Bernie Against the Beltway

The mainstream media likes to cast Bernie Sanders as a fringe candidate. Yet the data on individual donors don’t lie: across the country, he generates more enthusiasm than any other candidate — at least, outside the Beltway.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a town hall on jobs and economic security at Cheyenne High School on August 4, 2019 in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller / Getty Images

“[Bernie Sanders] rarely drops by diners or coffee shops with news cameras in tow, unlike most politicians. He hardly ever kisses babies, aides say, and does not mingle much at fundraisers.”

So wrote the New York Times’ Patrick Healy, before continuing: “His high-minded style carries risk. As effective as his policy-laden speeches may be in impressing potential supporters, Mr. Sanders is missing opportunities to lock down uncommitted voters face to face in Iowa and New Hampshire, where campaigns are highly personal.”

Healy wrote those words all the way back in October 2015, a few months before the Vermont senator’s shock draw with Hillary Clinton in Iowa or his landslide primary win in New Hampshire. They could just as easily have been written yesterday.

The mainstream media has almost unrelentingly cast Sanders as a fringe figure: at best, a well-intentioned but single-minded ideologue who eschews the niceties and conventions of electoral politics and lacks the common touch possessed by the infamously warm and down-to-earth personalities who have historically secured major party nominations.

Very little seems to have changed when it comes to the media’s treatment of Sanders, who — even in 2019 — is intermittently marginal, invisible, anachronistic, or only relevant to a handful of committed supporters unrepresentative of the country at large. Though favored by many a cable news pundit and op-ed columnist, this narrative has always been detached from reality. In truth, Sanders generates widespread enthusiasm across the country — and newly visualized data puts into perspective the sheer breadth of his support.

Made available in map form by the New York Times, data on the individual donations to the various Democratic presidential candidates paints a startling picture. With a total of 746,000 individual donors, Sanders leads the pack, with Elizabeth Warren coming second at 421,000. Others are far behind. Joe Biden, nominally the race’s current front-runner, has attracted a mere 256,000 individual donations — well under half Sanders’s total. But at least as significant is the regional distribution of the contributions, with the majority of America’s counties colored in various shades of blue to signify that the Vermont senator leads there in the number of individual donations — so much so that the Times saw the need to produce a second map with Sanders excluded, to make the other candidates’ relative strongholds visible at all.

Closer examination of the map yields some notable details. Even in areas not shaded blue for Sanders, he is by far the most likely to rank second in individual donors. He also dominates key states won in 2016 by Donald Trump like Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan — all of which will be critical to a Democratic electoral college victory in 2020. And, in what amounts to poetic symbolism, he fares worst among donors in Washington, DC, and those residing in the wealthiest parts of Manhattan (where Buttigieg is the favorite).

Support for many of Sanders’s rivals, by contrast, is much more regionally concentrated. Beto O’Rourke, who ranks a distant fifth in total donors at 188,000, dominates most of Texas. Support for Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Montana governor Steve Bullock is mostly concentrated in their home states as well.

Individual donations, of course, aren’t the only metric by which a candidate’s overall viability can be judged. But they nevertheless tell us a great deal about the level of organic enthusiasm being generated by the different campaigns and, on that score, Sanders is leaving his rivals in the dust. Add to the geographic breadth of his support the considerable popularity of policies associated with him — like Medicare For All, higher taxes on the wealthy, a $15 dollar minimum wage, and the Green New Deal — and there’s a strong case to be made that his campaign can assemble a broad, working-class coalition the likes of which American politics hasn’t seen for decades.

Is it any wonder that broad-based enthusiasm for Sanders, which sprawls across the map of the United States, stops when it gets to the Beltway?