As the longest-serving Independent in Congress and a self-identified “democratic socialist,” Sen. Bernie Sanders has built his political career outside of traditional party politics.
It's an approach that has served him well in independent-minded Vermont, a state he has called home for decades. Now Sanders is considering whether that approach would win on the national stage - the 2016 presidential campaign.
His message: that big money interests have perverted America's political process and that it's time for the voters to stand up to the millionaires and billionaires. Sanders hammers it home in an accent that owes more to Brooklyn than Burlington. He’s a gruff, unflinching advocate for working men and women.
“Are my views different than Republicans? Absolutely they are. Do I disagree with President Obama on some very important issues? Yes, I do,” Sanders told “Power Players” during a recent trip to Iowa. “And I think among Independents in this country, there would be a lot of support for me.”
Though Sanders acknowledges that he would enter the race as a “significant underdog,” he cautioned against underestimating him.
“If I ran, I would run to win,” Sanders said of a possible presidential campaign.
“People who know my history, as the longest-serving Independent in the United States, as someone who has defeated Democrats, defeated Republicans, who has won elections that nobody thought he could win, maybe don't underestimate me completely,” he added.
As he works to reach a decision, Sanders is spending a lot of time traveling to key battleground states so that he can, in his words, “develop a sense in my own gut as to whether or not there is the grassroots support.”
“My gut is telling me very clearly that there is a lot of responsiveness to the fact that there is something wrong in this country when the middle class is disappearing and the rich are becoming phenomenally richer,” Sanders said. “Whether or not people are prepared to jump into a campaign, make small campaign contributions and work hard, I don't know.”
One issue that Sanders said he is “wrestling with” is whether he would run within one of the two major political parties or forego party politics altogether to run as an Independent.
“If you go out there and you ask people what they think about the Democratic or the Republican Party, you know what they'll say? ‘We don't have a lot of faith in either party,’” Sanders said, pointing his thumbs down. “And that speaks to running as an Independent.”
But he also acknowledges that there are significant hurdles to operating outside the walls of the Democratic and Republican parties.
“The nature of election laws and rules all over the country makes it very difficult and hard to get on the ballot as an Independent,” Sanders said. “In fact, there may be some states you just can't do it. It's rigged to the two-party system. Second of all, if you run as an Independent, the media will pay less attention to you. Thirdly, you will not be able to get into the kind of debates that you can in the Democratic caucus.”
But whatever he chooses, Sanders said, he is resolved not to be a “spoiler” candidate. He keeps in his pocket a small brass keychain, a vintage campaign pin touting Eugene V. Debs for president. Debs ran for the White House five times on the Socialist ticket a century ago. Sanders suggested he may well run as a Democrat but hasn't yet made up his mind.
“I haven't made up my final decision and I've got to say a lot of my strongest supporters say, ‘Bernie, you've gotta stay out of the damn Democratic Party, run as an Independent,’” Sanders said. “Others say, ‘You know, in the real world you've gotta run in the Democratic caucus, get into the debates rally the American people in that way.’”
For more of the interview, including how Sanders believes his message can resonate across the political spectrum, check out this episode of “Power Players.”
ABC News’ Ali Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Bob Brant and Robert Brant contributed to this episode.