MONTPELIER — With his poll numbers surging and crowd sizes growing, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is on the rise. The sudden spike in interest from both voters and media presents opportunities and challenges, however, that the nascent campaign must now be nimble enough to respond to.
A CNN poll released last week pegged Sanders’ support at 35 percent in New Hampshire, just 8 points behind the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. It’s a remarkable rise for Sanders, the 73-year-old self-described democratic socialist. Most political observers did not expect Sanders to pose a serious threat to Clinton, and certainly not this early in the primary process.
In Denver last weekend more than 5,000 supporters filled the gymnasium at the University of Colorado while an overflow group watched on screens outside. Large crowds have also gathered in New Hampshire, Iowa and Minneapolis to hear Sanders’ populist stump speech and are embracing his economic message.
But with such sudden and intense interest comes potential pitfalls.
Bob Rogan, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and the former deputy campaign manager on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2003 and 2004, said there are significant challenges and pressures on a campaign when it suddenly catches fire. Dean, the former Democratic governor of Vermont, vaulted to the front of the Democratic primary pack in 2004, largely as a result of his opposition to the Iraq war, before fizzling in the Iowa caucus and dropping out of the race.
“It’s a bit like catching a tiger by the tail. The campaign is constantly trying to catch up to the candidate. You are excited about the crowds but the crowds create organizational and staffing demands on the campaign. The struggle is when there is a gap between the campaign’s capacity and the candidate’s trajectory,” Rogan said.
Perhaps nobody knows the challenges better than Dean himself.
“The problems for me arose coming from a base of 600,000 people. My rating in the polls surpassed all of the things that you have to do to keep up,” Dean said. “The biggest problem we had was getting the campaign organization ramped up to the degree that someone like John Kerry and Dick Gephardt would have with all that service in Washington.”
Sanders’ team is attempting to beef up its organization to match the blossoming interest. It recently several more staffers in Iowa and opened its first campaign office in Des Moines. Efforts to boost the organization are now focused on the Granite State, where Sanders’ poll numbers are even stronger, spokesman Michael Briggs said.
“As Bernie has said many times, other campaigns are going to have more resources to do more things, but we’re a scrappy operation that’s making the best of an increasingly interesting and good situation,” he said. “Are we going to need more people as this thing grows? Yeah. Are we going to need to figure out better ways to help people who want to help him? Yes, and we’re working on that.”