Independent or Democrat: How might Sen. Bernie Sanders run?

Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at Prairie Lights Bookstore on Feb. 19. -- photo by Adam Burke
Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at Prairie Lights Bookstore on Feb. 19. — photo by Adam Burke

Since 2013, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has spent more days in Iowa than any other likely Democratic candidate for president. And while he’s still deciding whether to run, many are speculating how he’d run as well.

Though he calls himself a socialist, caucuses with the Democratic wing of the Senate, and has even been encouraged to run on the Green Party ticket, Sanders is not just an independent senator; he’s the longest-serving independent in congressional history.

He would not necessarily have to switch parties to win the Iowa caucuses, either. Anyone can be nominated in the caucuses, regardless of party affiliation. A delegate can even be designated as “Uncommitted.” Candidates need at least 15 percent of the caucus vote to be viable for delegates.

Sanders has promised not to run as a third-party spoiler, however, so if he does run, it will likely be as a Democratic candidate.

How might that look? Tad Devine, a political consultant who’s working with Sanders, said that the senator might only need to publicly declare that he will run as a Democratic candidate and “pledge some allegiance to the Democratic Party.”

In recent town hall meetings in Iowa, meanwhile, Sanders will flip questions about his intent to run and solicit advice on running as an Independent or Democratic candidate.

Former University of Iowa professor David Redlawsk, who now teaches political science at Rutgers University, said he couldn’t think of any modern-era candidate who’s changed parties to run.

But it is unlikely, even in Iowa, that Sanders would be allowed in a Democratic debate without changing his party registration Redlawsk said.

The terms of the debates will be up to the debate sponsors, but Redlawsk said, “ I could not imagine Clinton agreeing to a debate if he [Sanders] is not a Democrat.”

There’s also the fact that Sanders hasn’t even formally entered the race. Sanders is still mulling a run while considering the benefits of a campaigning against entrenched Democratic candidates like former Sen./Sec. of State Hillary Clinton (also not officially committed), Vice-President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Sen. Jim Webb. (Sen. Elizabeth Warren has visited Iowa recently but said she will not run.)

And so the question remains, will Bernie Sanders run as a Democratic candidate for president?


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He beat his 2012 opponent for his U.S. Senate seat as an Independent, receiving almost three times as many votes. In 2006, he won the open seat, receiving over twice as many votes. In each race, he won the Democratic primaries, then declined the nomination from the party, this ensured that no other Democratic candidate would be on the general election ballot and the vote would not be split while keeping his independent status.

So while he’s never run for federal office as a Democratic candidate in a general election, he’s done some party-jumping to get on the ballot.

Sanders served as an Independent U.S. Representative from 1990-2006. He lost his first try at a U.S. House seat in 1988. From 1981-89, he served as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, his first elected office.

In his first bid for federal office, in 1972, he received 2.2 percent of the vote running for U.S. Senate on the Liberty Union ticket. During the 1970s, Sanders twice ran for governor of Vermont and twice for US Senate.

Sanders is expected to make an official announcement in March. Clinton, meanwhile, is expected to make an announcement within the next couple months.

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