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Why Aren't Progressives Excited About Bernie Sanders in 2016?

Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders says he doesn’t take it personally.
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/ Source: NBC News

Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders says he doesn’t take it personally.

He has been open about his willingness to challenge Hillary Clinton, who is expected to announce her candidacy this weekend, and give progressives a voice in the Democratic presidential primary. But while Sanders tours the country delivering fiery speeches railing against the “billionaire class,” many progressives remain preoccupied with a candidate who has repeatedly said she isn’t running -- Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“It’s not about me and it’s not about Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a great senator and a good friend of mine,” Sanders said in an interview following a rally in Chicago where he campaigned for mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia last week. “It is about: ‘Can we bring together working people to stand up and take on the billionaire class?’ Nothing personal about this at all, Elizabeth and I are good friends.”

Sanders, who has been labeled a socialist, has made multiple visits to the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire this year and recently completed a five-day trip that took him through California, Nevada, Texas and Illinois. He has drawn large and receptive crowds eager to hear him passionately denounce the Koch brothers and Citizens United while calling for a “political revolution” to reignite the middle class.

But as Sanders fires up liberals around the country, Warren’s non-existent campaign continues to loom. After the Chicago rally, Sanders politely thanked a supporter who tells him that she likes him “just as much as Elizabeth Warren.” Another progressive holding a “Run, Bernie, Run” sign said he supports both senators “but there is no way Elizabeth Warren is going to run for president.”

The efforts of influential progressive organizations remain focused on Warren as the greatest hope the left wing of the party has in influencing Clinton, the overwhelming favorite to capture the Democratic nomination in 2016. All the while, Sanders continues to move closer and closer to announcing his own campaign.

Democracy For America and MoveOn partnered to form “Run Warren Run” to encourage her to join the race. They have built an infrastructure in early voting states for Warren’s presidential campaign, along with helping to recruit small-dollar donors.

"If I run, I have to run a good campaign, not for myself but for all the people out there."

“Certainly Bernie has been carrying this debate for years and he’s very seriously considering it, which is why we didn’t do a draft campaign for him,” said Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America.

“This isn’t an either or proposition for us,” he added.

And as important as having more candidates with progressives ideals is to Dean’s group, they are also keenly aware of the importance of having more candidates that “look like the rest of America,” he said.

That’s why activists may not be immediately attracted to the 73-year-old white guy who has been in Congress since 1991.

But as progressives remain desperate to have an influence on the 2016 race, Sanders may be their best hope. Clinton, who liberals fear is too moderate, seems poised to capture the party’s nomination with little resistence, and Sanders has said there needs to be a competitive primary with “a voice to represent the working families of this country."

Still, running a bad campaign would much worse than running no campaign at all, Sanders has said. And that is what has been holding him back from jumping in the race.

“The issue is, if I run, I have to run a good campaign, not for myself but for all the people out there,” he said after the standing-room-only rally in Chicago.

Tad Devine, who was a senior adviser to both Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and John Kerry’s 2004 run, is now advising Sanders and believes all the Warren hype has actually helped Sanders by keeping keeping some Democrats on the fence while they hold out false hope.

There is a path for Sanders, Devine believes, but it will require around $50 million and a very strong showing in the Iowa caucuses.

A fundamental question of Sanders campaign would be: Can he raise millions of dollars without looking hypocritical if the core of his message is focused on minimizing the influence of those who have a lot of money? And can he accept help from a Super PAC when a core component of his campaign will be overturning the Supreme Court decision that paved the way for their creation?

"Bernie won't send his people to run the Super PAC," Devine said. "I also know if someone goes out and decides they're going to do it, we can't stop them."

His calls for public funding of campaigns and appeal to small-dollar donors may have its advantages when running against a fundraising juggernaut like Clinton.

"If it's a campaign filled with issues like income inequality and she is trying to raise a billion dollars, it undermines the campaign," Devine said.

And Devine feels Sander’s allegiances in Vermont will translate well across the border in New Hampshire, the first primary state. The bigger issue for Sanders would be Iowa, where “he has to establish himself as the credible alternative to Hillary,” Devine said.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey last month found that 21 percent of Democratic primary voters could see themselves supporting Sanders, well behind Vice President Joe Biden and Clinton, who were at 54 and 86, respectively. Just 15 percent of Democrats said they could support former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley garnered just 11 percent.

With a Biden run still very much uncertain, Sanders may have an opening to become the top Clinton alternative.

And as his tours around the country continue he is winning over new supporters, and realizing how many old ones he already has, like Barbara Murphy who attended the Chicago rally wearing a “Bernie Sanders for president” shirt and holding a sign with the message: “We love and Vote For Progressives.”

“I feel about Elizabeth Warren kind of like I felt about Obama. I thought it was too soon for Obama and I feel it’s too soon for Elizabeth Warren,” she said.

“Bernie fights for the people endlessly. He’s a tough man, he doesn't back down,” she said. “He’s just dynamite.”