BERNIE SANDERS, the self-declared socialist senator from Vermont, announced his encore presidential run on February 19th. After leading an unexpectedly strong revolt against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Mr Sanders hastened the race to the left among the current crop of Democratic contenders. He is unwilling to pass the baton just yet. His much-lampooned slogans—Medicare for all, a $15 nationwide minimum wage and free tuition at public colleges—are now mainstream. Among presidential hopefuls, fealty to these mantras can even seem mandatory.
In his announcement video, an unslick, 11-minute monologue, Mr Sanders sounded triumphant about his conquest of the Democratic Party. “Three years ago during our 2016 campaign, when we brought forth our progressive agenda, we were told that our ideas were ‘radical’ and they were ‘extreme’,” Mr Sanders says. “Well, three years have come and gone.” He sees a successful 2020 run as a fitting coda to his revolution. The antagonists remain the same this time around—billionaires, especially President Donald Trump; multinational companies; bad trade deals. But Mr Sanders seemed keen to address enduring sexism towards women and racism against blacks, two groups that did not greatly warm to him in 2016.
This time he enters a busy field with an agenda that is no longer outlandish. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts senator, is another longtime idol of the left who brings other flashy ideas—such as a wealth tax or universal child-care tax credit—along with a deeper command of detail. Even Kamala Harris, the California senator who took pains to say that she is “not a democratic socialist”, has nonetheless endorsed Medicare for all, the Green New Deal and a $15 minimum wage. Mr Sanders might stand apart with his broadsides against banks and trade deals, but his ideological lane is crowded.
What that means for his chances of winning is unclear. If Democratic primary voters are looking for a contest over ideological purity, then Mr Sanders, as the Medicare-for-all hipster who supported the idea before it was cool, is favourably positioned. He is performing well in early polls. On the morning of his announcement, punters on PredictIt, a political-betting market, thought him a leading candidate, trailing only Mrs Harris and Joe Biden (who has not yet announced his plans). They put his chances at twice those of Mrs Warren.
But if voters instead prize electability, that could spell trouble. Even if there is now little daylight between Mr Sanders and his primary rivals, the label of out-and-out socialist could hinder him. Mr Trump’s strategists see fear-mongering over socialism as a winning strategy, especially given that the president’s domestic agenda is stuck and his approval ratings are persistently low. In a preview of its arguments, his re-election campaign quickly released a statement denouncing “an agenda of sky-high tax rates, government-run health care and coddling dictators like those in Venezuela”.
If elected, Mr Sanders would be inaugurated at the spry age of 79. His primary opponents might be too courteous to bring that up. But Mr Trump, though just five years younger, surely would. In an interview with a local radio station, Mr Sanders was eager to take that criticism head on: “We have got to look at candidates not by the colour of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or by gender, and not by their age”. He also noted that he has “a great deal of energy.”