In late April, when he announced that he would enter the presidential race, Bernie Sanders was the relatively unknown junior U.S. Senator from Vermont. Now he’s everywhere.
Though the “Sanders surge” seemed to come from nowhere, it was long in the making. Sanders’ rapid rise in the polls, and his increasing visibility over the past few weeks, are in part the result of behind-the-scenes work by organizations like Progressive Democrats of America (PDA).
PDA was founded in 2004 by progressives at the Democratic National Convention who were disappointed with the party’s presidential nominee, John Kerry, but were unwilling to give up on electoral politics. One evening, at the convention’s conclusion, about 200 people met to chart a path forward.
“PDA was founded that night with an inside-outside strategy — to bring outside energy inside the party,” said Conor Boylan, who began working for PDA in 2009 and has been its co-director since 2014. “It was almost an insurgency: We’ll be members of the party, but we’ll also form our own chapters and hold the party accountable.”
PDA now has about 90,000 people on its email list. Of those, about 35,000 members actively support and participate in its work. It is funded by donations from its membership.
In early 2014, PDA began a petition drive to persuade Sanders to run for the presidency. When Sanders attended its tenth anniversary celebration in May of that year, PDA presented him with the petition. That event marked the beginning a strong push by the organization to encourage him to run for the Democratic nomination.
The effort paid off this spring when Sanders announced his candidacy. “We’ve just caught fire since then,” Boylan said. “So it has grown from this small idea — that we have to get Bernie to run — to him actually announcing. And I’m starting to think now that he could actually win this thing. It’s been amazing the way it’s gone the past 15 or 16 months. And where’s it going to end?”
Along with its sister organization, People Demanding Action (which focuses on advancing a policy agenda rather than electoral politics), PDA’s priorities are healthcare reform, campaign finance reform and environmental and economic justice.
House parties are central to PDA’s work. Its website allows people interested in volunteering for the Sanders campaign to sign up to organize a party or find one that’s scheduled near them. PDA sends organizers a kit with information on the basics of hosting a party and assigning people to different tasks, like handing out flyers and maintaining a social media presence.
PDA’S early and energetic supporter of Sanders gives it a unique relationship with the campaign, Boylan said. “We were the first group to lead this effort. We stuck to our guns from the very beginning, when a lot of other people were focused on Elizabeth Warren.”
In These Times recently discussed Sanders’s prospects — and PDA’s work — in an interview with Boylan.
Sanders is starting to get quite a bit of media attention. What’s behind the so-called “Sanders surge” — the fact that he’s getting more people at his rallies and a lot more media attention?
A couple of things. Before he even ran, his social media presence was unbelievable. He was a known quantity in social-media circles. So the campaign has kind of branched off of that and done a really, really good job on social media. And he’s had some good interviews along the way — the Bill Maher interview in June on his HBO show really brought Bernie to a new audience.
Up until a couple of weeks ago, not that many people knew who he was. And now I’m getting people who are coming to me, friends who aren’t political, and saying, this Bernie Sanders guy looks great. So they’ve done a good job — his outreach team is doing a good job of getting his name out there.
Because he got into the race at a really good time, when there wasn’t a full field, he’s seen as a difference maker. He made his position really clear on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example. So they’re making all the right steps in terms of getting out there, into the field, and having a really crisp, strong message that resonates across the board.
There are so many people in this country to get your message out to, but the people who are paying attention are grasping it. Bernie is a no-nonsense guy who says what he believes and has legislation to back up what he believes. But also, he’s been doing it for 30 years. He has the record. But he’s got work to do, since he’ll never have the name recognition that Hillary has.
He’s 73. Will his age be an issue?
He’s an older man — that’s just the reality. But if he keeps doing what he’s doing and saying the right things, I don’t see it as a problem. I mean, some people will worry about age, but I’m worried more about where he stands on TPP, on income equality.
What about his identification as a socialist — how do you see that playing out?
He talks a lot about the Scandinavian model. People hear about what’s [the strong social welfare state] in Scandinavia and it makes sense. There’s something to be said for that model. And he’s been very explicit in talking about that, and saying that it’s where this country needs to go.
When he talks about family values — what are family values? If a mother has a child, she’s back to work two weeks later. And those should be the best moments of a family’s life, when a child is born. In other countries, there are six or eight months, or a year, of maternal leave.
So that’s the beauty of Bernie. He can go after some of these Republicans when they talk about family values. They believe they own that.
The standard question when it comes to an outsider candidate like Bernie Sanders is: Do you think he can actually win? But it doesn’t sound like you have much doubt about that.
Two months ago, I would have said he can give it a good run and he [probably won’t win]. Now, because of his momentum — I don’t want to get too carried away, but the polls are closing. I’m not saying it will be easy, and he’s still a long shot. But if he continues to spread the word in Iowa, and gets more people interested — let’s face it, Hillary finished third in 2008 in Iowa. So she’s not that popular there. I’m starting to think that there’s a chance.
If he wins Iowa and wins New Hampshire — you just don’t know, because you can catch fire. And Hillary’s a known brand, but there are some questions. She’s going to have to campaign pretty hard. If it’s a two-horse race, he’s got a chance.
But just to be clear, you’re not in this just to push Hillary Clinton to the left.
Definitely not. We’re in it to win this for Bernie. To be honest, maybe when we got in this race it was more about holding Hillary accountable. But now it’s like, this is crazy. Maybe we can pull this off.
What happens if Bernie is not the candidate? What does PDA’s role become?
We’re not going to endorse Hillary — that’s the reality. We took a poll of our membership, and there just isn’t the energy there to endorse her. So we’ll switch gears, and the issues that Bernie has pushed, we want to continue to move those issues and build a movement, continue to build a movement.
The work will continue. We’ll make sure we harness the energy and move on to whatever the next step is. So we’ve got a lot of work to do over the next year, to get more people involved in politics and show them that there’s a bit of hope out there.