The joke about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is that nobody knows who he is.
The junior senator from Vermont, and newest entrant in the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, is beloved by a certain kind of political aficionado who admires his independent streak and remembers the 8.5-hour speech Sanders delivered on the Senate floor in 2011 against the Bush-era tax cuts. In his successful 1990 run for Vermont's sole House seat, Sanders asserted, "I am a socialist and everyone knows that." (He added: "They also understand that my kind of democratic socialism has nothing to do with authoritarian communism.")
But in a March poll by Gallup, only 24 percent of respondents had even heard of Sanders. Jon Stewart — a natural political ally of Sanders on many issues — showcased this chart last week highlighting Sanders' low name recognition:
But name recognition is the least of Sanders' problems as a presidential contender. In a two-person race for the Democratic nomination, being the anti–Hillary Clinton has its benefits: People will find out about Sanders soon enough. It's what they'll learn that's the problem: He is a 73-year-old Jewish democratic socialist from Vermont — population 626,000, roughly the size of America's 26th largest city — and isn't going to play the super PAC game.
Comparing Sanders to Clinton, Stewart handicapped the race: "He has a set of consistent principles that he has run on his entire political life. She is going to crush him."
And yet, in the first 24 hours after his terse, curmudgeonly campaign kickoff on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, Sanders raised $1.5 million from 35,000 people giving an average of $43.54. That's a better first-24-hour haul than any of the Republican candidates who have jumped in the race. It suggests a grassroots network like the kind that fed fellow Vermonter Howard Dean's 2004 run, or former Rep. Ron Paul's 2008 and 2012 campaigns for the Republican nomination.
And the Ron Paul analogy is particularly apt. In fact, Bernie Sanders is quickly shaping up to be the Ron Paul of the 2016 election.
That may come as a surprise to Ron Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is already running a serious race for the GOP nomination. But while Rand Paul is touting himself as a "different kind of Republican," he's not running as an outsider or a fringe candidate. Bernie Sanders, like Ron Paul, is an outsider's outsider.
And the Paul-Sanders similarities only begin there.
Both men have a libertarian bent, though Sanders would be better described as a civil libertarian and Paul a fiscal one. Sanders started his political career as a candidate for the Liberty Union Party, before becoming an independent aligned with Vermont progressives for his successful 1981 run as mayor of Burlington. Paul started out with the Republican Party, defected to the Libertarian Party from 1987 to 1996, then rejoined the GOP.
Both men are on the older end of the political spectrum — Paul, 79, was roughly the same age in 2008 as Sanders is now — and more germanely, each finds their most ardent followers among the younger strata of the political spectrum. Both men promised revolutions. Paul and Sanders voted against the Iraq war and 2008 Wall Street bailout, are wary of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and both want to audit the Federal Reserve.
Ron Paul's political genius was organization, community building, and paying attention to the nuts-and-bolts of electoral politics. It's unclear if Sanders has similar campaign prowess. But at least his ideological leanings don't appear to be a deal-breaker: A recent Reason-Rupe poll found that 50 percent of Democrats viewed socialism favorably (as did 33 percent of independents and 26 percent of Tea Partiers). Still, Sanders, like Paul, is not going to win.
Which is another way of saying that the political press won't really treat Bernie Sanders any more seriously than it treated Ron Paul. But like Paul, Sanders has two things that people say they crave: principled conviction and authenticity.
Bernie Sanders will light plenty of political hearts on fire, including in Iowa and New Hampshire. He will hold at least some appeal to the 58 percent of Americans (in a September 2014 Gallup poll) who want a third-party candidate for president — i.e. the Ross Perot voters. He will get favorable press at least until he starts polling in the 20s (if he can get there).
Sanders isn't a Ron Paul clone, by any means. The two men disagree on plenty of issues, from abortion to gun regulation. Paul has a reputation as being somewhat prickly, but Sanders is a full-on grump. ("A commonly heard phrase [in Vermont] is 'Bernie Sanders is a man of the people who doesn’t particularly like people,'" reports New York's Nigel Perry, who goes on to call him "grumpy grandpa" Sanders.)
And for all his fringe-y qualities, Sanders is a slightly more realistic candidate than Paul. Sanders rails against the super-rich and/or super-conservative — currently that means the Koch Brothers and Wall Street bankers — but he isn't prone to conspiracy theories like Ron Paul. Sanders is no gold bug. Also, he doesn't have the taint of racism that dogged Paul — Sanders was active in the Civil Rights movement; he was at the March on Washington in 1963 for Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.
As Bernie Sanders says, don't underestimated Bernie Sanders. "If one thing is for certain, Bernie Sanders, for all his seeming marginality, is as savvy and hard-nosed a politician as you'll find," says New York's Perry. "He's a lone wolf, but won't be caught howling at the moon like the last Vermonter to mount the big stage, Howard Dean."
Still, maybe don't give him your heart, either. Bernie Sanders could very well run one hell of a populist barnburner of a campaign, but he won't be the next president. Just like Ron Paul.