On Sunday morning, Donald Trump’s reelection campaign sent an email to millions of subscribers that came with a dire warning in the subject line: “Socialist Invasion: Bernie Sanders and AOC Barnstorm Iowa.”
The note began: “Forget Joe Rogan. An endorsement from AOC is actually problematic.”
The rest of the email was an unremarkable recitation of the horrors of a Sanders-led socialist regime in America, but it underscored Trump’s shifting electoral concerns as Sanders surges in the final week before the first caucus in Iowa.
Trump, according to operatives in his circle, has expanded his reelection worries from his longtime focus on former Vice President Joe Biden to the new twin threat of Sanders and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is running for the nomination but has committed to spend at least $1 billion of his fortune to defeat Trump, no matter who is nominated. Trump’s interest in Bloomberg and his money is described by his advisers as “an obsession,” but he has also long been concerned that the populism embraced by Sanders, as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would play out in unpredictable ways in a general election.
Last week, the New York Times reported that some of Trump’s advisers believe that Sanders is a beatable general election candidate and have worked to elevate him, a report that former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign seized on to argue that Sanders is a risky nominee. But the same article suggested that Trump himself disagrees and has been working to undermine Sanders with his public comments. “The president, his advisers say, has been in need of a clear target for months, and he believes he is actually hurting Mr. Sanders. Mr. Trump’s advisers do not necessarily share that view,” the Times reported. The divergent views among Trump and his aides lead to an amusing strategic synchronicity: Trump believes that he is hurting Sanders by attacking him, while the president’s advisers believe that he is helping Sanders with those same attacks — and so Trump attacking Sanders serves the interests (as they understand them) of both Trump and his advisers.
In stump speeches made in January, Trump mentioned Sanders’s name — or, as Trump refers to him, “Crazy Bernie” — eight times as often as Biden.
While only one of those prognostications can be correct, Trump’s private fears, as ever, have emerged publicly as well, according to an analysis of Trump’s public comments on the race going back to early 2019. Trump has tweeted more times about Sanders in just the first few weeks of this year than he has since last summer, while he has tweeted slightly less about Biden, even as the former vice president has been central to Trump’s narrative around impeachment. In stump speeches made in January, Trump mentioned Sanders’s name — or, as Trump refers to him, “Crazy Bernie” — eight times as often as Biden. This marks a drastic change from last fall when Biden was a frequent Trump target at campaign rallies, while Sanders was barely mentioned.
As Warren rose in the late summer and early fall, Trump’s mentions of her climbed as well, then declined as her own polling did in late October and November. Buttigieg merited a handful of Trump mentions in December, as he climbed in the polls, but fell back quickly.
Head-to-head polling over the past year has generally shown Biden to have the widest lead over Trump, followed closely by Sanders (who has a 3-point edge over Trump in the Real Clear Politics average). Warren and Buttigieg generally fall third and fourth against Trump. A New York Times analysis that found Warren faring poorly against Trump in key rustbelt states was deadly to her campaign in the fall. When Bloomberg is considered in the comparison, he tends to poll ahead of Trump, but not as well as Biden and roughly equal to Sanders.
The reference in Trump’s campaign email to Rogan — “Forget Joe Rogan” — came with no explanation or background, reflecting the campaign’s awareness of the controversial podcast host’s reach in popular culture. (Last week, Rogan, one of the most popular media figures in the country, said he would probably vote for Sanders. The Sanders campaign shared a video with his comments on Twitter, a move that was wildly controversial among some segments of the left, who charged Sanders with elevating a figure they slammed as transphobic, sexist, and racist.)
Trump has long been nervous about Sanders, as he explained in a private conversation with Lev Parnas, a central character in the impeachment saga, and others in 2018, audio of which has been leaked.
“I think Bernie as vice president would have been tougher,” Trump said, referring to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 selection of Sen. Tim Kaine to be her running mate. “He was the only one I didn’t want her to pick.”
“You know, I got 20 percent of [the] Bernie vote, people don’t realize that, because of trade, because he’s a big trade guy. He basically says we’re getting screwed on trade, and he’s right. I’m worse than he is, but we can do something about it. I don’t know if he could have,” he said, presumably meaning that he is worse for free trade supporters than Sanders would be. “But had she picked Bernie Sanders, it would have been tougher,” Trump continued. “Now, then you say — people say no, it would have been easier because then her sort of establishment, normal Democrats would have come to me, so she may have lost a lot of votes too.”
Trump, at the April 2018 dinner, added, correctly, that he thought Sanders would run in 2020, even as people at the table disagreed. “I think he might, because he does a lot of television. Usually when they do a lot of television, that means they’re running.”
After Sanders announced his candidacy last February, Trump similarly said during an Oval Office press briefing that Sanders’s position on trade was comparable to his. “Oh, Bernie Sanders is running. Yeah, that’s right. Personally, I think he missed his time. But I like Bernie because he is one person that, you know, on trade, he sort of would agree on trade. I’m being very tough on trade. He was tough on trade. The problem is he doesn’t know what to do about it. We’re doing something very spectacular on trade.”
Trump, if he wants to get serious about Sanders, may need to come up with a more effective nickname for the unorthodox independent senator from Vermont. “Crazy Bernie,” like Trump’s “Crazy Nancy” for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is the name Trump resorts to for political rivals he doesn’t know how to handle.