Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said on Sunday that the tens of thousands of people who turn out to his rallies aren’t “registered Democrats,” just “ordinary people” — and that’s one of his main advantages in the race.
"When I speak to 28,000 people in Portland, Oregon, and 27,000 people in Los Angeles, the vast majority of those people, they're not, quote, unquote, ‘registered Democrats.’ They are ordinary people who are sick and tired of politics as usual,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Sanders argued that his independent status and broad appeal could be an asset if he wins the Democratic nomination, as he’d turn around “abysmal” Democratic turnout.
"One of the real advantages, I think, of me winning the Democratic primary, is that we can get a lot of young people, a lot of working people involved in the political process, getting them out to vote in a way that establishment politicians can’t,” he said.
“Democrats are losing because voter turnout is abysmal. I think we can change that.”
His comments came in response to remarks from another Democratic opponent for the nomination, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who earlier this week suggested the Vermont independent only became a Democrat to run for president.
Sanders dismissed that criticism, noting he had caucused with Democrats in the House and Senate for decades and arguing his independent status would be an asset in the general.
But the candidate has enjoyed a surge in support since officially launching his bid in May, causing Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton headaches as he draws monumental crowds to rallies across the nation and continues to eat into her lead in the polls.
What was once a 60-point lead over Sanders for Clinton in a June NBC/WSJ poll narrowed to just 34 points in the last NBC/WSJ survey, conducted at the end of July.
In the interview, Sanders dismissed comparisons of his own anti-establishment campaign to that of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who’s seen a similar groundswell of support from Americans who say they’re fed up with politics as usual and intrigued by Trump’s willingness to speak truth to power.
“Here’s the difference” between me and Trump, Sanders said: “I am not a billionaire. My family doesn’t have a whole lot of people.”
Sanders said unlike Trump, he’s raising small-dollar donations from a broad swath of Americans, reaching out to working class and middle class people for support.
“I think that’s a little bit of a different approach than Donald Trump,” he said.
Sanders’ message has dovetailed somewhat with Trump’s, however, as they’ve both railed against the dysfunction in Washington and framed themselves as anti-establishment reformers. But on Sunday he highlighted his more liberal ideas as reasons why he believes his campaign is catching fire, like income inequality, access to healthcare and education and big money in politics, issues he said are "life or death to the American people."
Sanders has, however, faced some criticism from a major Democratic voting bloc: African Americans, some of whom have been frustrated with how the candidate has handled Black Lives Matter protesters at his recent events.
A BuzzFeed report out this weekend revealed Sanders’ campaign reached out to the protest group to set up a meeting and apologized that “it took our campaign so long” to do so — a note Sanders said “was sent out by a staffer, not by me...without my knowledge," and he added he didn't think it was necessary to apologize to the protesters.
But he insisted that “there is no candidate for president who will be stronger at fighting against institutional racism and, by the way, fixing a broken criminal justice system.”
He could have further competition on that issue and others soon — recent reports have suggested Vice President Joe Biden is inching closer to a run. Sanders was unfazed by the possibility, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd that “everybody who knows Joe likes him and respects him,” and that the decision on whether to run is ultimately up to Biden.
But “if he does run, I promise him an issue-oriented campaign,” Sanders said.