How Bernie Sanders' 2020 campaign is harnessing the power of rock stars

In a political moment awash in celebrity endorsements, Sanders is doing something special.
Image: Julian Casablancas
Julian Casablancas, lead singer of The Strokes, performs at a Bernie Sanders campaign event at the Whittemore Center Arena at the University of New Hampshire, on Feb. 10, 2020, in Durham, N.H.Andrew Harnik / AP
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By Ivie Ani

On Feb. 27, legendary hip-hop group Public Enemy shared a poster on Instagram featuring a concert-like shot of Bernie Sanders in black and white. The words “Fight The Power” were displayed in big, bold red letters. The Democratic presidential candidate’s name was printed in the iconic typography of the group’s logo below.

The Sanders campaign launched the poster saluting Public Enemy’s 1989 song “Fight the Power” to promote the group’s performance at the Los Angeles Convention Center last weekend — just two days before Super Tuesday, when California, 13 other states and one U.S. territory went to the polls. (Sanders would go on to win the most votes in California, with former Vice President Joe Biden not too far behind.)

A month earlier, nearly 7,500 Sanders supporters gathered at the Whittemore Center Arena at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, on Feb. 10 to see the senator from Vermont... and The Strokes. It was a presidential rally-turned-rock concert — there was even Sanders-Strokes merchandise for sale — with a similar feel to Sanders’ star-studded Iowa rallies featuring Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver. Though the rock band premiered new music on stage, Sanders remained the star of the show.

And yet, amid the celebrity guests, Sanders has managed to remain a headliner. Indeed, he is having his own rock star moment. How is it that Sanders, an octogenarian democratic socialist can stand beside rock bands and outshine them? And how has Sanders harnessed the power of music in a political moment awash in celebrity endorsements?

Candidates flexing and leveraging their high-profile connections aren't new. Just as in past campaigns, celebrities have consistently showed up for candidates during the 2020 primaries. This time around, Sanders enlisted high-profile allies such as rapper Cardi B, who joined him in a sit-down conversation posted to YouTube, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and filmmaker Michael Moore.

Before dropping out of the presidential race, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., held a concert with John Legend where he played the piano and guests were seated in an auditorium. In 2016 Hillary Clinton landed a Beyoncé co-sign and often brought Katy Perry to rallies.

But Sanders in particular has been adept at combining the political and the cultural.

During the Durham show, T-shirts featuring the senator’s name and the stylized Strokes’ logo sold for $27 each. Sanders’ key is in branding, as these elements show. His campaign is careful to make the experience feel more like an event than a rally.

Sanders’ image is already somewhat iconic. His supporters lovably caricature him — likening him to a messy-haired mad scientist or a comically grumpy old man like Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” But Sanders seems unbothered by the memes. He neither performs the character nor does he pander to it. He just lets it exist on the internet. He isn’t afraid to be the joke, or the poster or the caricature.

These are deliberate choices that build Sanders’ likability, an election’s most intangible element. Surrounding oneself with celebrity can add to this appeal.

“There still is a competition to break through, and the added draw of a celebrity on the campaign trail is an added twist to the regular talking points or stump speech,” Ted Johnson wrote recently for Deadline. Whether it’s a photo op or using celebrities to gather information on voters — like Oprah Winfrey campaigned for Barack Obama in 2007, “polls of registered voters show that celebrity endorsements don’t really sway votes,” Johnson writes, “but the public certainly pays attention.”

But candidates always have to make sure their celebrity endorsers don’t overshadow them. They need to strike a balance that doesn’t make it seem like they’re overcompensating for something. When Hillary Clinton lost the presidency in 2016, some criticized her campaign for relying too heavily on celebrity appearances, perhaps to make up for the critique that the former secretary of state was not charismatic.

Sanders faces a different type of critique as it pertains to unifying the Democratic Party.

Democrats right now are divided between moderates and progressives. Increasing the schism is a risk no candidate can afford to take before November. Instead of trying to appease the entire party, Sanders has consistently appealed directly to his fan base. Sanders’ rhetoric isn’t the lingua franca of the left, but he’s betting big on a devoted constituency, and that rock star appeal.

To be clear, America doesn’t need another celebrity for a president, but Americans seem to gravitate toward presidents with celebrity-like status — from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. There have been countless assessments of “the Clinton effect.” When running for the presidency in 1992, Clinton literally played the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” like a musician promoting a newly released album.

Obama’s appeal was also obvious, something that was solidified in pop culture. But in the beginning, his meteoric rise from obscurity was seen as both a skill and a potential fault. "[Obama] is really a rock star as a politician," former Bush administration U.N. ambassador John Danforth said in 2009. "But... So what? … How do you get from that to doing something?"

And as the race to November narrows, Biden and Sanders now face the challenge of “doing something” with their popularity.

“The more charismatic candidate usually wins the presidency,” Larry Wilmore noted in a recent episode of his “Black on the Air” podcast. “The one that connects with people through personal charisma tends to win.” Guest Jon Favreau — Obama’s former speechwriter — opines that the Democratic nominee needs to be a “happy warrior,” suggesting an effective president should be able to perform hope in the midst of reality. “It’s not as important to people that you are a barometer on how things are going either good or bad, but that you are a fighter,” Favreau argues. In this framework, politicking in itself is a performance. The performance doesn’t necessarily need to be “good” or “bad;” it just needs to be convincing.

Sanders often makes statements like “we need a political revolution” — to a roar of cheers. Maybe Sanders’ appeal lies in the very real possibility that he’s forged a diverse enough coalition to overtake President Donald Trump. Or maybe he’s putting on a performance just good enough to compete with The Strokes. With any good performer, a semblance of skill, talent, charisma, stage presence, endurance, or an amalgam of all of these assets is necessary for a good show. But sometimes, none of that matters. Sometimes enough people in the audience just need to like you more than the last act.