What do you get when an unapologetic Democratic Socialist from Vermont does the Nae Nae on the Ellen Degeneres Show, just hours before bringing down the house at a Hollywood nightclub packed with 1,100 screaming fans, and then embraces a spot-on impersonation of him by comedian Larry David during this weekend’s Saturday Night Live?
You have the next phase of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign for president.
Coming out of a strong debate performance that his fans, if not the pundits, deemed a resounding win, Sanders is planning to shift gears. He’ll be a little looser, like he was when he danced his way onto the set of Ellen’s show last week and reassured reporters in Iowa this weekend that he has “an ample supply of underwear,” a riff on David’s impersonation.
He’ll focus more on policy specifics and substance with a series of speeches, including one, he promised Sunday, explaining what Democratic Socialism means to him.
And he’ll hold events that are quite a bit smaller than his typical mega-rallies, with an eye now on persuading undecided voters to back him over his main competition, Hillary Clinton.
“We’re going to continue to do very large rallies, I think we’re going to have some larger events this weekend. But also small events, like this, where a few hundred people come out where you can have the opportunity to answer questions and chat,” Sanders told reporters after an invite-only gathering at the home of two supporters in Iowa this weekend.
It’s all part of the campaign’s plans to turn the outsider candidate into a credible contender poised to win his party’s nomination next summer.
Campaign Adviser Tad Devine said they’re about to “begin a phase of persuasion, as opposed to introduction,” which will soon include paid television advertising and mass media interviews, like with his Ellen Degeneres sit-down.
That will also include more intimate, town-hall style events, “particularly in the early states,” Devine said, where “we want to give undecided voters the opportunity to speak directly to him, and to hear directly from him.”
He emphasized that Sanders’ insistence on running a positive campaign, that stays away from personal attacks, won’t change. But during his stop through Iowa, Sanders seemed more comfortable taking swipes at Clinton, though he was careful not to do it by name.
“Without mentioning any names — wouldn’t want to do that -- I am glad that another candidate has come on board in opposition” to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, he said coyly at one point.
At another point, he said that “one of the fun aspects” of running for president is “you can kind of force a discussion on issues…and sometimes — without naming any names — you can kind of force other candidates to come on board.”
Of all the candidates in the field, on either side, Sanders has emerged as one of the more press-shy — he does post-event gaggles with media only rarely, and holds town-hall-style events or impromptu retail campaign stops about as frequently. Sanders is a frequent guest on political talk shows, but there, the topics are clearly-defined, the questions largely expected.
More intimate venues are not without risk, as he’s certain to face pointed questions on the latest controversy of the day and, of course, foreign policy, which remains one of his weaknesses in contrast to Clinton.
But Devine insisted Sanders is ready to dig deeper into policy, and indeed is planning to focus on the details with “more speeches of a serious and substantive nature.”
“The message of this campaign isn’t going to change,” Devine said. “There’s not going to be an emphasis or de-emphasis on any particular issue or set of issues, but we’ll focus in the weeks ahead on substance, talk in more specific terms about the policies he will pursue.”
For Sanders, one of those key issues is the Democratic Socialist label he wears proudly, but one that still bears a stigma with voters. Sanders promised in Iowa on Sunday to give a speech “on what Democratic Socialism means to me.”
“Because I think there are people, who, when they hear the word socialist, get very, very nervous,” he said. Sanders acknowledged people may not know that there are many countries globally — including Sweden and Denmark, which he references frequently on the trail — that have had Democratic Socialist governments, and may not be familiar with their policies.
“So I think that’s a discussion that we have to have,” he said.
Sanders’ aides also believe the more intimate interactions with voters will help him overcome a perception of the candidate as prickly and cold.
Indeed, a more relaxed Sanders was on display post-debate, as he good-naturedly joked with a reporter about the frequent questions he receives on Clinton’s emails; “Ber-Nae-Nae’d” on national television; and shouted back and forth to the crowd at his small-dollar fundraiser in Hollywood Wednesday.
The new Sanders is also seemingly more comfortable with traditional larger-dollar fundraisers, like the one he had last Wednesday night, at the Hollywood-area home of Syd Leibovitch, a wealthy real-estate agent and frequent donor to Democrats. The minimum donation for the event was $250, though some attendees gave up to the legal limit of $2,700, with the event expected to raise about $150,000 overall.
Sanders has made combating income inequality and breaking up the big banks a major pledge of his campaign, but he said during the fundraiser it doesn’t clash with his campaign ethos.
“The truth is there are many people in this country who have money but also believe in social justice,” Sanders said.
Even without many big-dollar fundraisers, Sanders raised $26.2 million during the third quarter, with the average donation coming in at $30. That fundraising pace looks unlikely to slow down — in the 24 hours following the debate alone, Sanders said he raised $2.5 million. He finished the quarter with $27.1 million in the bank.
And that cash will be put to good use. Devine said the campaign is staffing up in all of the Super Tuesday states, those that vote on March 1 and offer candidates a huge delegate pot for the convention. He said they’ll be adding staff in New Hampshire, where they already have a footprint, and developing their operations more in South Carolina and Nevada as well.