WASHINGTON – Bernie Sanders has long argued — but not proved — that his big government populism can win over voters in the largely white, rural communities that flocked to Republican Donald Trump in recent elections.
Now, as the chief Senate shepherd of a $3.5 trillion budget proposal, Sanders believes he has another chance to test the theory.
The Vermont senator is in Trump country this weekend, promoting a budget plan packed with progressive initiatives and financed by higher taxes on top earners. He's targeting two congressional districts where Trump’s vote totals increased between 2016 and 2020.
“My Republican colleagues are telling everybody that Bernie Sanders and the Democrats are going to raise taxes. You're right, we’re gonna raise them on the richest people in this country,” Sanders said to the cheers of more than 2,000 who braved sweltering heat and humidity at an outdoor amphitheater in West Lafayette, Indiana on Friday evening.
Sanders has a similar event set for Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Sunday. He's noting the difference between the two parties since congressional Republicans in years past approved tax cuts for wealthy Americans but are expected to universally oppose a plan Sanders calls “the most consequential piece of legislation” since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s.
It could be a tough sell for the face of the progressive movement. Republicans have already begun using Sanders — along with fellow democratic socialist and New York Rep Alexandria Ocasio Cortez — in ads warning voters that the country is edging toward socialism.
Sanders saw his political star first rise to national prominence by nearly winning the 2016 Democratic Iowa caucus, and he won that year's Indiana Democratic primary over Hillary Clinton. As he pushed his party to the left and drew in voters frustrated by mainstream Democrats, Sanders and his supporters advocated for reaching beyond the traditional base by making appeals to the white, working class that can attract Republicans or nonvoters.
“He has a lot of credibility with a lot of audiences that aren’t just progressive,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the progressive advocacy group the Working Families Party. “He an outsider. He’s a populist. And, in fact, the thing that we’ve always said works best against rightwing populism is progressive populism.”
But evidence that Sanders has particular sway with Trump voters is limited. According to data from the Pew Research Center, only about 3% percent of people who consistently supported Sanders during 2016 the primary season, and were confirmed to have voted in the general election, said they ultimately supported Trump, compared to 81% who reported voting for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in February 2020 found that 17% of Republicans had a favorable view of Sanders, roughly the same share of Republicans who had a favorable view of Biden.
Sanders is making his case anew based on a budget proposal that promises universal pre-kindergarten and tuition-free community college, while increasing federal funding for child care, paid family leave and combating climate change. It also expands health care coverage through Medicare, creates pathways to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally and encourages states to adopt labor-friendly laws.
Republicans say the plan is loaded with unnecessary spending and tax increases. But Democrats, as long as they stay united, can use their narrow advantage in each congressional chamber to muscle it through anyway.
“This is the peoples’ budget. This is the budget that will impact tens of millions of lives in this country: the elderly, the children, the working families, the middle class,” Sanders said in an interview before Friday's rally. “So it is appropriate to me that the chairman of the budget committee get out and around the country, hear what people have to say. Explain what we’re trying to do.”
Although Sanders is heading to red states, his trip isn't exactly into hostile territory. His 2016 and 2020 presidential bids were popular with college students and West Lafayette is home to Purdue University. Many of Friday's attendees were college-aged and wore Sanders shirts from his past campaigns. Some of the loudest cheers came when the senator said he supports canceling all student debt — even though the budget proposal doesn't go nearly that far.
Sanders similarly remains popular in Iowa, which means Sunday's event there may attract far more of his longstanding supporters than potentially persuadable Republicans.
Still Sanders scoffed at suggestions that his presidential campaigns were more successful at energizing wealthy liberals than at growing his party's appeal with crossover voters.
“Poll after poll shows that the American people want the wealthiest people, large corporations, to pay their fair share. This is not wealthy liberals, this is working class Americans,” Sanders said.
There is some bipartisan support for key parts of the budget proposal. A July AP-NORC poll found that at least 4 in 10 Republicans said they supported funding for free preschool, affordable housing, broadband internet, and local transit, and close to 3 in 10 reported supporting funding for free community college.
Sanders’ trip follows President Joe Biden and his allies traveling the country to promote the administration’s efforts to strengthen the post-coronavirus pandemic economy. There are no plans for Sanders and Biden, two former presidential campaign rivals, to travel together to promote the proposed budget, though Sanders said he wouldn't oppose doing so.
The administration's economic agenda has been overshadowed in recent days by violence and chaos in Afghanistan. But Sanders says Americans from across the political spectrum understand that what's occurring there and with their pocketbooks back home "are separate issues.”
Republicans believe Sanders hitting the road could ultimately hurt his party during next year's midterms, when control of Congress is at stake.
“Democrats’ embrace of socialism helped us pick up seats in 2020,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Mike Berg "and will continue to help us in the midterms.”
AP Director of Public Opinion Research Emily Swanson contributed to this report.