Can Bernie Sanders Beat Hillary Clinton?

Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont waves to the audience before speaking at the opening of the 2015 National Action Network Convention in New York City on April 8, 2015. Mike Segar/Reuters

Approaching on Hillary Clinton's unguarded left flank, Bernie Sanders stumped Al Sharpton's National Action Network in Manhattan on Wednesday with a rousing attack on America's "grotesque" wealth inequality and suggesting a nice socialist solution: spending a trillion dollars on job creation to repair the nation's crumbling infrastructure—cash he said he'd obtain by plundering tax havens in the Caymans and Bermuda.

It's hard to wring a trillion out of those legendary havens, but no matter. Sanders has said he plans to announce his candidacy "sooner rather than later," and the New York visit was the final stop in a week of speeches at mostly labor-packed halls in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and Austin, Texas, where he endorsed Mayor Rahm Emanuel's unsuccessful opponent. (That put him on the opposite side of the Democratic establishment and President Barack Obama.) He also used his day in Manhattan to hit big media, talking to media outlets that include the new Daily Show, tonight.

Sharpton didn't endorse the Independent senator from Vermont, but he did choose Sanders, 73, to deliver the plenary speech before about 500 politically active delegates in midtown Manhattan.

The white-haired "out" socialist delivered, heaping contumely on the billionaires and hedge fund managers in a Brooklyn baritone accent that, if you shut your eyes, sounded like Larry David. He patiently waited for New York's home dignitaries: Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (rumored to be considering a run for governor in 2018).

Sharpton joked that de Blasio would endorse Sanders over Hillary Clinton, but the reverend played his own cards close to his dapper vest. He later told Newsweek by email, "I am undecided on who I will endorse. I am pushing policies to all of the candidates now. No endorsements yet, until after they have all stated their agendas."

Given that Hillary had a good relationship with Sharpton when she was New York's junior senator for eight years, it's unlikely he'd get out in front with a long shot like Sanders. But Sanders is a proud rabble-rouser, and that could be simpatico with the African-American power broker.

On a day when a video showed yet another white cop shooting an unarmed black man, the crowd's response was muted relative to speeches about the need for national laws reining in cops.

"My Republican colleagues say we have a large deficit," Sanders shouted. "Well, they are right. They went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and forgot to pay for those wars. At the end of the day, what we gotta say to millionaires and billionaires is welcome back to America! You gotta start paying your fair share of taxes! We are losing $100 billion a year because these corporations stash their money in the Caymans and Bermuda. Hedge fund managers in New York pay an effective tax rate lower than truck drivers and nurses."

Sanders recently said he believes he can beat Clinton, which makes him a rare person who believes that. But he is drawing a strong contrast to Clinton's colossus of a campaign operation. He is running cheap (he takes no corporate money, and his average donations are between $25 and $50) and sly: All his recent events were organized by local volunteers. He told a reporter in Texas, "We didn't spend a nickel on this thing.... There is a media mentality that lives in its own world, that keeps listening to each other and keeps repeating the same stuff over and over again, and they don't get outside into the real world. It used to bother me a lot. It bothers me a whole lot less now."

Polls in the crucial next-door primary state of New Hampshire put him behind Clinton 47 percent to 8 percent, but he's used to Granite State surprises. Sanders eschews pollsters, having worked in American politics for 30 years without them, starting as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, at a time when it was the only American city with a pro-Sandinista position on the Nicaraguan civil war of the 1980s. After four terms, he ran for Congress and spent 16 years in the House. He has eight years in the Senate, where he was last reelected with 71 percent of the vote.

Beyond the happy vales and alpaca farms of the Green Mountains, Sanders does for the Democratic base what Ted Cruz, or perhaps Ben Carson, does for the Tea Party faithful. Progressives disillusioned with Obama have Bernie to soothe their souls. In 2010, he performed a legendary eight-and-a-half-hour filibuster against Obama's proposed tax-cut compromise. Among the tons of Grade A progressive red meat he served up that day, he accused the rich of a "religious ferocity" in their greed.

"They need more, more," he said on the Senate floor. "It is similar to an addiction. Fifty million is not enough. They need $100 million. One hundred million is not enough; they need 1 billion. One billion is not enough. I am not quite sure how much they need. When will it stop?"

The filibuster was a social media sensation (a top trending topic was #filibernie). He turned the speech into a book, called The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class.

In his pre-presidential stump speech, Sanders offers totally free public higher ed (he plans to introduce a bill to this effect in the Senate in the next two weeks), raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and, of course, single-payer universal health care.

Sanders is unabashedly for more government for more people—and still more of it after that.

The government, in Bernie-world, isn't the problem. The problem is wealth inequality, and he can reel off every one of the New Gilded Age stats. "Let me tell you how ugly and obscene this is: Today the top 1 percent owns about 42 percent of the entire wealth of the United States," he reminded Sharpton's delegates. "The bottom 60 percent owns less than 2 percent. Today the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much as the bottom 90 percent."

If that wasn't enough for the aristocrats running from the class warriors, he politically doxed a member of the percenters: "One family—Wal-Mart—owns as much as 40 percent of Americans."

Sanders flies without a polling net, but he's not just an aw-shucks guy. Tad Devine, who worked for Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry, is a top Democratic consultant who has said Sanders can win, in part by grabbing angry Tea Partyers. That sounds like a stretch, but it's what Sanders is saying himself.

Bernie Sanders addresses a news conference in support of a proposed constitutional amendment for campaign finance reform, on Capitol Hill on September 8, 2014. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Speaking to the Austin American-Statesman earlier this week, Sanders alluded to his Tea Party gambit. "Some of those people are working-class people who want to be able to send their kids to college, who are as disgusted with Wall Street as I am, who understand that there is something wrong when both political parties are heavily dominated by big money. And I think what we will do, if I run, is to introduce members of the Tea Party to the people who founded the Tea Party, the Koch brothers, and to tell the Tea Party members what the agenda of the Koch brothers is, which is end Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and also to have unfettered free trade.

"I don't believe that is what most Tea Party members support.… In my heart of hearts, I believe there is very strong support, very strong majority support to take on the issue of income and wealth inequality," he said.

Sanders has some branding work to do first, of course. He still must enlighten the blue-collar wing he thinks should be on his side about the, umm, socialist label. A New York magazine reporter went to New Hampshire to test the Bernie waters last winter and turned up a guy in a bar named "Tom" who supposedly said, "Bernie Sanders for president? You frickin' kiddin' me? Is that even legal? A commie for president?"

Bernie knows the type well enough. He's been winning taciturn Yankees since 1981, when he first got elected mayor. He comes from blue-collar Brooklyn Jewish stock. His father was an immigrant and "working man" who couldn't afford to buy his family a house but put his kids through college.

In any case, a member of the Senate he may well be, but patricians do not have a friend in Bernie. "My colleagues talk about fears over wealth redistribution," he said Wednesday in New York. "In the last 30 years, there has been a massive wealth redistribution, but it's gone in the wrong direction. I am talking about trillions of dollars! Our job is to take that and start redirecting it back to the middle class."

Correction: This article originally incorrectly stated that Bernie Sanders ranks as a millionaire. Sanders in fact has a net worth below that of a millionaire.