Supporters and pundits will in Bernie Sanders’s Michigan primary victory seek signs of new life in his bid for the Democratic nomination. But whether or not he bests Hillary Clinton in 2016, his campaign has given the nation a glimpse of what the future of the Democratic Party might look like – and who might be among its leaders.
U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii was probably little known outside her district or party circles until a few weeks ago. But then the thirty-four-year-old congresswoman resigned her position as Democratic National Committee vice chair to endorse Sanders. It was probably the highest profile endorsement of his campaign, and it came from a politician many consider to be a rising star.
Gabbard has an impressive resume: She was elected to the Hawaii House of Representatives at twenty-one, served two tours of duty in Iraq, and won her current House seat in 2013. While conventional wisdom suggests her DNC resignation appears to be a needless sacrifice of present prominence, her endorsement might instead be read as an initial effort to spearhead and lead the Democratic coalition of tomorrow.
Sanders’s campaign has been defined by a particular calling card: his absolute control of the millennial vote. Voters aged eighteen to thirty-four prefer Sanders over Clinton by an eleven-point margin and enthusiastically support the public spending programs he espouses. The tally from Iowa was especially stark:
In the Iowa entrance poll… Sanders amassed astounding margins among young people. He crushed Clinton by an almost unimaginable six to one—84 percent to 14 percent—among voters younger than 30. For those tempted to dismiss that as just a campus craze, he also routed her by 58 percent to 37 percent among those aged 30 to 44.
One state does not a nation make, of course. But the evidence strongly suggests that the future Democratic voter base is interested in policies farther to left than what the current party leadership is offering.
With this in mind, Gabbard’s endorsement of Sanders makes sense as a long-term bet on the trajectory of the party’s composition. Even if Clinton wins the 2016 and 2020 elections, Gabbard will only be in her early forties when a new opportunity to run for president arises. At that point, the Democratic voting demographics will have advanced eight years, and today’s young adults will have become a majority bloc within the party.
By throwing her lot in with Sanders now, Gabbard could take the reins of the cause he’s established. But will she? The liberal wing of the party actually rates her as more moderate than Sanders or Clinton. This may make her an odd heir-apparent to the Sanders phenomenon, but based on the voting trends identified above, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her start taking more liberal positions on economic policy to anticipate the demands of a future constituency.
Further, in addition to being respected within her own party, Gabbard has fans on the other side of the aisle, and has even been profiled by National Review as a Democrat to watch. Sanders has often talked about trying to win over white, economically disadvantaged working-class voters who support Donald Trump and traditionally vote for conservative candidates. But could Gabbard’s rapport with both parties, and her military background, allow her to pitch more expansive social spending programs to those who find Trump’s nationalism appealing but are turned off by his toxic xenophobia? Could she carry on the task that Sanders has tried to begin: luring working-class whites back into the Democratic fold while continuing to broaden its support among minority demographics?
It would be an impressive feat. But whether or not she embraces Sanders’s platform over the long term, Gabbard’s political pedigree, leadership skills, and composure and eloquence could make her a formidable candidate were she to run for higher office. Sanders may be promoting a revolution in 2016, but Gabbard has the potential to scale it beyond its current economic roots.