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Sanders is surging in the race for the party’s presidential nomination.
“This is not a protest campaign,” Sanders declared at a breakfast with reporters in Washington last week. “This is a campaign to win.”
He’s also a powerful presence on social media, where supporters are eager to share news about his campaign.
While Clinton remains the runaway favorite, the strength of Sanders's challenge — particularly in the states hosting the first two nominating contests — is starting to get attention.
“Primary voters in New Hampshire are looking around,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “They at least want to shop around a little bit before buying. Based on that alone, it’s probably time for the Clinton campaign to take Sanders seriously.”
One of the problems that the Sanders surge poses for Clinton is that Democrats say there’s a risk in taking him head on.
Doing so could rally his supporters, alienate liberals the Democratic nominee will need in the fall of 2016 and elevate Sanders as a challenger.
“They’re not going to go after him publicly, and it’d be wrong to do so,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on then-President Clinton’s 1996 reelection bid. “She needs to keep slogging along and make the kinds of policy arguments that will eventually make some of the uniqueness around Sanders dissipate.”
Meanwhile, Sanders has begun sharpening his attacks against Clinton — and she has started to move toward Sanders on at least one issue.
Clinton on Thursday said she would vote against giving President Obama fast-track authority, which would make it easier for the White House to negotiate trade deals. That came after weeks in which Sanders bashed Obama’s former secretary of State for not taking a clear position.
Democrats close to Clinton aren’t sounding the alarm over Sanders just yet. They believe he has a low ceiling of support that doesn’t extend beyond the anti-establishment contingent.
“Everything can change, but as I see it today, he doesn’t look to me to pose a material threat,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a veteran of the Clinton White House. “I don’t think he has the capacity to unite the different factions of the party beyond those who are naturally inclined to go against the establishment.”
Sanders is uniquely positioned to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In the 2008 contest, Clinton finished third to then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). While she has sought to make a play for the state in this cycle, the 2008 showing suggests a vulnerability.
In New Hampshire, Sanders has an advantage in being from Vermont.
A Suffolk University survey released this week found Sanders had closed to within 10 percentage points of Clinton in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
“He has to bet the farm there,” said Bannon. “A victory in New Hampshire would scare the hell out of the Clinton people.”
Democrats say the Suffolk poll will have the Clinton campaign on notice and strategizing about how to deal with and contain an early defeat.
“It’s quite possible he’s going to win a primary some place and will have the momentum,” said Sheinkopf. “He may do well in Iowa or New Hampshire. The question is, how do you deal with that? They need to be prepared to organize and surround him on the ground and prepare a response without just going out and attacking him.”
Lehane argued that New Hampshire looks like an outlier.
“After New Hampshire, the nature of the electorate and the dynamics change dramatically,” he said.
Indeed, Sanders will need to expand his base beyond the mostly young and male supporters he’s managed to energize so far.
Sanders and Clinton are essentially tied among men in New Hampshire, according to the Suffolk University poll, but Clinton holds a 19-percentage-point lead among women. Clinton also has a nearly 2-to-1 advantage among seniors in the state, who are more likely to vote in a Democratic primary.
And in the long run, the deck is stacked against Sanders.
The Vermont senator has been able to raise money. His campaign brought in $1.5 million in the first 24 hours of its launch, a total surpassing the amounts raised by GOP Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), who are all running for president.
He's said he received 200,000 small dollar donations since announcing, with the amounts averaging $40.
Still, he won't have the cash that the Clinton juggernaut will have.
And Sanders does not have Clinton's name recognition. According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, she leads Sanders by 47 percentage points.
“Democrats want to win, and she’s the more electable of the two,” said Sheinkopf. “The electability argument will kick in, and his supporters on the left will tire.”
Still, Democrats are looking at Sanders in a different way.
“He’s a long shot, but he has a chance,” said Bannon. “It’s not a good chance, but it’s a chance.”