Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders came close to winning the Iowa caucus on February 1. His opponent Hillary Clinton got 49.9% while Sanders got 49.6%. This was a remarkable achievement for a candidate who many commentators said was too radical and stood no chance against the well-entrenched and well-resourced Clinton.
Speaking in Iowa on the day, Sanders said: “We were taking on the most powerful political organisation in the United States of America. And tonight while the results are still not known, it looks like we are in a virtual tie.”
As a sign of the huge support Sanders' near-win has generated, in the 24 hours after he gave his speech in Iowa, his campaign received US$3 million in donations. Four in 10 of those donors had never contributed to his campaign before.
The Sanders campaign had earlier said it had raised $20 million in January alone.
A look at the donations reveals something about the nature of Sanders' support base. “We have received in this campaign 3.5 million individual contributions,” Sanders said in Iowa. “And you know what the average contribution was? It was $27!”
Sanders has made a point of rejecting corporate donations. “We do not represent the interests of the billionaire class, Wall Street or corporate America. We don't want their money. We will — and I am very proud to tell you, we are the only candidate on the Democratic side without a super PAC [Political Action Committee, set up to collect large donations].”
Sanders' campaign funding mostly comes from millions of small donations, indicating that he has great support from the working and middle class. This contrasts with Clinton's campaign, largely funded by large donations and Super PACs.
The difference in campaign funding is seen by many Sanders supporters as an indicator of what they do not like about Clinton – that she is beholden to corporate interests and would only serve the political establishment.
This anti-establishment mood is a fundamental part of Sanders' popularity. His call for a “political revolution” taps into the widespread disillusionment felt by many Americans.
It is not hard to see why. A New York Times investigation found that just 158 families provided nearly half the donations ($176 million) to early presidential campaigning last year. Each family contributed $250,000 or more. Of these, 138 supported Republicans, 20 supported Democrats.
Another 200 families gave more than $100,000 each. Together, this accounted for more than half the total donations to campaigns in the first half of last year. Sixty-four of these families are involved in finance, far ahead of the next-biggest groups of natural resources (17 families) and real estate and construction (15 families).
Sanders has called out Clinton for accepting donations from various mega-wealthy sources, most notably wall Street. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein said on CNBC's Squawk Box that Sanders' denunciations of Wall Street “has the potential to personalize it, it has the potential to be a dangerous moment”.
“Not just for Wall Street, not just for the people who are particularly targeted but for anybody who is a little bit out of line.
“It's a liability to say I'm going to compromise, I'm going to get one millimeter off the extreme position I have and if you do you have to back track and swear to people that you'll never compromise. It's just incredible. It's a moment in history.”
Such a statement from the head of one of the hated financial giants responsible of the Great Recession of 2008 can only strengthen Sanders popularity. It is clear that Sanders' is doing so well precisely because of the effects that recession has had on American society.
The fall-out from the recession hit the working and middle classes badly. Many ordinary people were dismayed that the financial institutions that caused the crisis not only went almost entirely unpunished, but were bailed out by the government.
Today, these giant institutions continue to make huge profits. Meanwhile living standards fell for many and millions were kicked out of their homes.
In 2014, 47 million people — or 15% of the population — lived under a poverty line of US$24000 for a household with at least four people. That was 2.3 percentage points higher than in 2007.
Another 7% of the population (21 million) live in deep poverty, with incomes at 50% or less of the poverty line.
A further 33% of the population (105 million) live close to poverty, with incomes less than two times that of the poverty line.
In 2014, the US Department of Agriculture estimated that 14% (17 million) of US households were food insecure. This means they had difficulty at some time during the year in providing enough food for themselves.
Of these food-insecure households, 61% said that in the previous month, they had to rely on food and assistance programs, such as food stamps.
Student debt stands at $1.3 trillion. One of Sanders' most popular policies is to make all university tuition free.
Writing in the Washington Post, Sanders said: “In 1978, it was possible to earn enough money to pay for a year of college tuition just by working a summer job that paid minimum wage. Today, it would take a minimum wage worker an entire year to earn enough to cover the annual in-state tuition at a public university.”
A stand out from the Iowa caucus was the huge lead Sanders had over Clinton when it comes to youth votes. For those aged 17-29, Sanders got 84%, compared with Clinton's 14%. Of those aged 30-44, Sanders got 58% compared to Clinton 37%.
For the older demographics, Clinton fared better than Sanders. For ages 45-64 she received 58% to Sanders' 35%. And for ages 65 or over she got 69% compared to Sanders' 26%.
Younger people seem to have less faith in the status quo and are more willing to support a candidate who talks about change.
In a Town Hall debate on February 3 in New Hampshire, Clinton was asked why she took more than $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs in 2013. She replied: “Well, I don't know. That's what they offered.”
In the same debate, Sanders said: “I do not know any progressive who has a Super PAC and takes $15 million from Wall Street.”
Just a few days before the Iowa caucus, Clinton said Sanders' Medicare-for-all plan would never happen. “People who have health emergencies can't wait for us to have a theoretical debate about some better idea that will never, ever come to pass.”
She made this statement after a Kaiser Health Tracking poll in December found 58% of people favour Medicare-for-all.
Clinton was playing on the common perception that, while Sanders' policies are nice, they are non-practical, and that she knows what is actually possible to achieve. But as the Iowa results show, her practicality pales in comparison to the hope that Sanders represents for many young people.
In 1994, Clinton supported Medicare for all. “I believe that by the year 2000 we will have a single payer system,” she said at the time. “I don't think it's — I don't even think it's a close call politically ... it will be such a huge popular issue in the sense of populist issue that even if it's not successful the first time, it will eventually be.”
But as International Business Times reported: “Between that declaration and her now saying single-payer can never pass, Clinton has vacuumed in roughly $13.2 million from sources in the health sector”.
Sanders also has strong support among military veterans, many of whom feel they have been abandoned by the government that sent them to war. His opposition to the Iraq war has won him much praise.
Tyson Manker, head of Veterans for Bernie, said: “He's the only candidate who talks about, let alone understands, the 'true costs of war'.
“As President, I know Bernie will never rush to judgment on foreign policy issues, or lie about his intentions. I know that he'll never put troops into harm's way unless it's absolutely necessary to keeping America safe.
“And I know that he will fundamentally transform the VA [Veterans Affairs] into a leading example of modern healthcare, one that is worthy of all Veterans.”
Limits and debates
Despite his array of progressive policies, Sanders has critics on the left who disagree with his position on key issues — such as foreign policy (where Sanders takes a less anti-establishment line than in other areas), gun control and his handling of racial issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for reparations over slavery.
There is also debate among forces to the left of the Democrats about whether running for the Democrats is a suitable strategy for a socialist and over the nature and limits of Sanders' “socialism”.
Sanders is definitely not advocating a socialist revolution. His politics are better understood as broadly social democratic — hoping to alleviate the ills of capitalism without overthrowing capitalism. His support for some of the key aspects of the US empire is an example of that distinction.
But the effect he is having on US politics is profound, and is creating a powerful pole pulling political discourse — at least as far as it relates to the Democratic race — to the left.
One of the main criticisms of the Occupy movement was that it failed to develop a political vehicle to achieve change. It seems much of that Occupy spirit has found a political expression in Sanders, although the limits of that home if it remains within the corporate-controlled Democrats are clearly real.
Sanders' campaign builds on the class-consciousness that Occupy restarted in US society. Speaking in Iowa, Sanders said: “The American people are saying no to a rigged economy. They no longer want to see an economy in which the average American works longer hours for low wages while almost all new income and wealth is going to the top 1%.”