- Steven Senne/ap
- Sen. Bernie Sanders leaving Burlington International Airport Saturday
Laura Edwards still thinks the world of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Nearly four years after voting for him in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, the 50-year-old school nurse from Salem, N.H., sees him as the leading advocate for universal health care and economic justice.
But as she settled in to watch Sanders last week at a midday forum in Manchester, N.H., Edwards expressed a lingering concern about the 78-year-old senator. "The only thing, I hate to say, is his age," she said. "He doesn't seem to be slowing down at all, but that's just an honest concern."
The next night, on October 1, Sanders suffered a heart attack while campaigning in Las Vegas. His campaign advisers soon made clear that the health scare wouldn't force him from the 2020 presidential primary. But for some voters still contemplating their options, it may have been enough to strike Sanders from their list.
"I guess it just kind of confirmed why I'm not ready to vote for him," Edwards said in a follow-up interview this week. "These things can happen, and it's just the age they can happen."
Edwards said she hoped Sanders would remain in the race and continue to inspire her and others. "But as far as my vote, probably not," she said, adding that she was leaning toward Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind.
Though Sanders may well make a full and swift recovery, his campaign's prognosis is far less clear. "It's a tough subject to overcome," said Mark Longabaugh, who served as a senior strategist for Sanders during the 2016 campaign and is now unaligned. "It raises the issue of age."
Nearly a week after his heart attack, Sanders and his staff were giving mixed signals Tuesday afternoon about his capacity to keep up the breakneck pace he's set throughout the campaign.
"I don't think in the long term it's going to affect his ability to campaign as aggressively as he has before," senior adviser Jeff Weaver told Seven Days. "I've known the guy for 35 years, and he's doing fantastic. He's got the heart of a lion. He's strong as a bull. The conviction of a prophet. He is in top form."
But after visiting a cardiologist that day, Sanders told reporters in Burlington that he would "probably not do three or four rallies a day" anymore. "I think we're going to change the nature of the campaign a bit," he said. "Make sure that I have the strength to do what I have to do."
The timing of Sanders' health crisis was particularly unfortunate. Throughout September, his campaign was dogged by headlines about anemic polling, staff shake-ups and his failure to secure the endorsement of the Working Families Party. Meanwhile, fellow progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was breaking out of the pack. In at least some early state polls, she overtook former vice president Joe Biden as the campaign's putative front-runner.
As Sanders traveled to Las Vegas on October 1, there was reason to believe he could reset the narrative. That morning, his campaign announced it had raised $25.3 million over the previous three months — more than any other Democrat had in any quarter of the race. Later that day, the campaign said it was buying $1.3 million worth of airtime in Iowa to run its first television advertisement.
But after senior adviser Jeff Weaver issued a statement the next day that his boss had "experienced some chest discomfort" at an event the night before and required two stents in a clogged artery, the campaign was again blown off course. Instead of stumping in California and Iowa, as he'd been scheduled to do, Sanders spent three days at Desert Springs Hospital Medical Center before flying home to Burlington on Saturday to recuperate — perhaps until next week's Democratic debate.
The candidate did his best to project health and normalcy, appearing in a video upon his release from the hospital addressing his team on an all-staff conference call and occasionally addressing the cable television reporters staking out his New North End home.
According to Michael Briggs, a longtime Sanders spokesperson who retired in 2017, the key to addressing the situation is "to be completely forthright about it." Though Briggs argued in an interview last Friday that the campaign had been doing just that, some journalists and pundits saw it differently.
After refusing for days to answer questions about what happened, the campaign finally confirmed Friday evening that the "chest discomfort" episode had actually been a "myocardial infarction" — better known as a heart attack. His staff issued a six-sentence statement from the Las Vegas physicians who had treated him, in which they said his hospital stay had been "uneventful with good expected progress." But the campaign refused to make his doctors available to the press and provided no additional information about his condition or prognosis.
"Bernie Sanders had a heart attack and his campaign hid that fact from the public for three days," Rolling Stone senior writer Jamil Smith wrote last Friday on Twitter. "His age does factor into the conversation that we should be having about this — but he could be younger than Buttigieg and this would still be improper behavior."
According to Weaver, the campaign was simply trying to ensure that it fully understood Sanders' condition before releasing more information. He said he had not been aware when he issued the "chest discomfort" statement that Sanders had suffered a heart attack.
"Look, I think all of you live in the two-minute cable news cycle," he said. "Sometimes to get the full picture it takes a little more time than you folks in the media would like."
Whether or not the campaign was appropriately transparent, the episode threatened to divert attention from Sanders' message at a critical time — and refocus it on his age and that of his two chief rivals: Biden, 76, and Warren, 70. For much of the next week, news outlets from the New York Times to the Washington Post focused on the candidate's health — not his plan for health care reform.
"Look, the national media has been coming up with strategies to discredit Bernie for many months," said state Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden), a former Sanders staffer. "So I would guess that, after a brief hiatus to not be too crass about it, they will come back to drumming this idea that he's too old and that he's unfit in that way. If they didn't have that, they would pick a different way."
Sanders' allies are quick to note that, prior to his heart attack, he appeared to be in excellent health. "I can't keep up with him," said Ben & Jerry's cofounder Ben Cohen, a national cochair of Sanders' campaign. "I'll be out on the trail with him for three days and I need to go home and recuperate, and he just keeps on going."
While others see the episode as a political setback for Sanders, Cohen has a more optimistic take. "This has revitalized his whole campaign," he said. "It's revitalized his supporters. You know, it's been kind of a call to action."
The senator from Vermont may need that spark. In recent weeks, Warren has pulled ahead of Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire and, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, she's overtaken Biden nationally.
"I think Elizabeth Warren has moved into a very commanding position in the race," said Longabaugh, the former Sanders strategist. "I think from a message standpoint, an organizational standpoint and a pure hustle standpoint, she's out-campaigned everybody."
Meanwhile, the increasing likelihood that the U.S. House will impeach President Donald Trump "is completely overshadowing the Democratic primary process," according to Longabaugh. "I think, in some ways, this kind of freezes the race. From [Warren's] standpoint, it freezes her in a position of strength."
Four years ago, New Hampshire state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark (D-Portsmouth) endorsed Sanders after he won her state's primary by more than 22 points. This time around, she said, "A fair number of people who were supporting Bernie in 2016 have switched to Elizabeth."
Fuller Clark herself hasn't yet endorsed a candidate, and because she serves as vice chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, she doesn't plan to until after the primary. But she doesn't sound like she's still feeling the Bern.
"I think that Bernie's rhetoric is a little tired. He's saying exactly the same things he said four years ago, by and large," she said. "It's like, there he goes again." Though Fuller Clark doesn't see Sanders' recent health scare as disqualifying, she thinks voters "will feel a little apprehensive, in a way that they weren't before."
With four months remaining before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, there's still time for Sanders to make a comeback — and he has the money to pay for it. Though candidates don't have to report their latest fundraising figures to the Federal Election Commission until next week, it appears that Sanders has significantly more money in the bank than any of his rivals: $33.7 million, according to his campaign.
With more states poised to hold primaries and caucuses earlier next calendar year than in 2016, that cash advantage could prove crucial — particularly in delegate-rich California, which plans to hold its election on Super Tuesday in early March.
Another key advantage: "His supporters are incredibly loyal," said Julia Barnes, who served as Sanders' New Hampshire state director in the 2016 campaign. "There's a trust and a faith that's extremely rare and increasingly rare in American politics. It's a real heart commitment."
Sanders' solid base of support could make the difference, Barnes believes, particularly if more than a few candidates emerge from the early states and are forced to engage in a protracted fight for delegates.
"If it does remain a crowded field, it's good for Bernie, because he has a really strong foundation of support in states where other candidates are still trying to make inroads," Barnes said.
According to Briggs, the former spokesperson, Sanders is used to being an underdog. "It wouldn't be the first time that people underestimated him," Briggs said. "But they do that at their peril."