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How Bernie Sanders' Progressive Message Carried His Insurgent Campaign


Hillary Clinton has secured her place in history. She is the first woman to lead a major party's quest for the presidency. Her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders has run an insurgent campaign. He's drawn thousands, and he says he's not yet out of the race. NPR's Sam Sanders has this look at the Vermont senator's journey.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Bernie Sanders announced his run for president in April of last year, and his first press conference as a candidate was a little underwhelming.


BERNIE SANDERS: OK. Thank you all very, very much - whoa - for being out here today. Let me just make a brief comment.

S. SANDERS: He told journalists that he didn't have much time to talk about his run for president because he had to get back to his day job as U.S. senator. In fact, in the beginning, lots of Bernie's campaign staff were working for his campaign for free after they finished their day jobs. A month later in Vermont, Sanders had a bigger campaign rollout, and you could just start to hear the heart of Sanders' message.


B. SANDERS: Today, with your support and the support of millions of people throughout our country, we begin a political revolution to transform our country economically, politically, socially and environmentally.


S. SANDERS: A mix of Occupy Wall Street themes of income inequality with a dash of anti-establishment and unapologetic progressive ideals. And then in Iowa, Sanders pulled off an upset. He virtually tied Hillary Clinton. She only won that state by .3 percent.


B. SANDERS: That is why what Iowa has begun tonight is a political revolution.

S. SANDERS: Sanders' campaign had gone from outsider to insurgent.

WINNIE WONG: Bernie is not the movement. He's a part of the movement.

S. SANDERS: Winnie Wong is a Wall Street activist, and she's the founder of People for Bernie. That's a group of activists who helped convince Sanders to run. I talked to her at a Bernie rally in San Francisco this week. Earlier, they tried to draft another U.S. senator - Elizabeth Warren.

WONG: Ready for Warren came out of Occupy. People for Bernie came out of Ready for Warren. So that's the arch, right? But it was always a tactic. At every step, it was a tactic. It was strategic.

S. SANDERS: Bernie Sanders is not a one-off. He is part of a progressive populist movement that had been building for years, from Zuccotti Park to Burlington, Vt., and almost to the White House, but there were roadblocks. Sanders lost a critical black vote to Clinton in South Carolina by almost 70 percent. He struggled to connect with minority voters. At a Sanders rally in Seattle, there was this.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If you do not listen to her, your event will be shut down.


S. SANDERS: Black Lives Matter activists commandeered his mic and made him shut down his own event. Eventually, Sanders was able to win a majority of black and Latino youth votes in several contests, on top of lots of working-class whites, but that wasn't enough to shake Clinton's lead with women and older minority voters. As time went on, Clinton racked up a bigger lead, and Sanders was reluctant to attack his main rival.


B. SANDERS: But I think the secretary is right. And that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.


HILLARY CLINTON: Thank you. Me, too. Me, too.

S. SANDERS: That's Sanders during a Democratic debate, refusing to go after Clinton over her use of a private email severed during her time as secretary of state. Eventually, Sanders did attack, hitting Clinton hard on things like her paid speeches to Wall Street.


B. SANDERS: Now I kind of think if you get paid a couple hundred thousand dollars for a speech, it must be a great speech. I think we should release it and let the American people see what the transcript was.


S. SANDERS: But by then, Clinton's lead was just too big, even as Sanders often outraised Clinton with millions in small donations. Now Sanders is all but locked out of the nomination, and his story resembles that of another insurgent campaign.

JESSE JACKSON: I have one eye on the campaign and one eye on the crusade.

S. SANDERS: That's Reverend Jesse Jackson. He ran for president twice - in '84 and '88. That second run was big. He won 11 contests, and he happened to be endorsed by the likes of Bernie Sanders, then mayor of Burlington, Vt. Ultimately, Jackson came up short and had to leave the race, but he says it was still worth it.

JACKSON: Americans are better because we expanded the tent and got more people involved.

S. SANDERS: Sounds a bit like Sanders, huh? Jackson says now is the time for Sanders and Clinton to unite their separate factions of the party.

JACKSON: It both wings are flapping, we're going to fly. But if one wing's flapping, one wing is dormant, we will lose.

S. SANDERS: Winnie Wong with People for Bernie - she says it's important to look back and see just how much Bernie has changed the conversation. He helped make a movement like Occupy and an ideology like Democratic socialism mainstream.

WONG: Forget about the 10 million who cast their vote for Democratic socialist. Think about the many more millions across this country who are talking about it probably right now.

S. SANDERS: And Wong says that movement will continue. She says for all true activists, the idea that something has failed - it's just not a part of their language. Sam Sanders - no relation - NPR News, Culver City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.