Bernie Sanders was in trouble. Why, pundits asked, would anyone vote for a 78-year-old white man – and socialist! – who just had a heart attack?
On Tuesday the Vermont senator delivered a dramatic riposte; first with a feisty debate performance, then by gaining the backing of three rising stars of the progressive movement – all young congresswomen of colour.
Among them was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who, with megawatt charisma and 5.5m Twitter followers, is one of the most coveted endorsements in the Democratic presidential party.
“AOC”, as she is known, is expected to appear at a “Bernie’s Back” rally in her home city of New York on Saturday alongside Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. That leaves Ayanna Pressley, who hails from Sanders’ rival Elizabeth Warren’s home state of Massachusetts, as the only member of “the squad” not in his camp.
Whether it will have any long-term impact on the race is pure guesswork, but as a shot in the arm it comes not a moment too soon. Sanders’ heart attack on 1 October was a reminder that he would be the oldest person ever elected president, while Warren has surged past him in the polls to frontrunner status.
“My gut is that Sanders’ campaign had this endorsement in their back pocket for a long time and they were waiting to deploy it at a moment where it would be most helpful,” said one progressive politician, who did not wish to be named.
“The greatest tell on that was the fact that Sanders rolled it out in the way he did on the debate stage, specifically on a question about his health. That’s fine: that’s what a smart campaign would do. It’s designed to inject new energy into the campaign.”
Suggestions that Sanders might bow out of the race were evidently premature. He raised $25.3m for his campaign in the last quarter, more than any other Democrat. At Tuesday’s night’s three-hour debate in Ohio, he forcefully defended his healthcare plans and was even humorous; when Cory Booker pointed out that Sanders supports legalising marijuana, Sanders replied: “I’m not on it tonight.”
Ocasio-Cortez could prove an invaluable asset and antidote to his perceived weaknesses. While he is in his late 70s, she has just turned 30. While his supporters have sometimes struggled to escape their 2016 reputation as white male “Bernie bros”, she is a Hispanic woman with an ability to inspire big, diverse crowds.
For Ocasio-Cortez, not endorsing Sanders would have been something of a snub. She was an organizer for his insurgent 2016 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton and has credited him for inspiring her, while working as a bartender, to go into politics. They are aligned as democratic socialists with millennial appeal and a passion for combating the climate crisis.
Democratic Socialists of America welcomed the endorsements. “Backed by a diverse, energetic working-class movement and by democratic socialist politicians like Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders can win the Democratic nomination, beat Donald Trump, and, together, we can transform politics in this country and around the world forever,” it said in a statement.
Should Sanders claim the nomination, however, the endorsements will likely delight Trump. He has sought to raise the profile of the squad and portray them as the face of a Democratic party taken over by radical leftists with trillion dollar spending plans. The idea of nominee Sanders sharing a stage with Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Omar would be fodder for the president’s ad-making machine.
But for now, the squad represents Sanders’ best hope of blunting Warren’s momentum. Neil Sroka, communications director for the progressive group Democracy for America, said: “This is an important boost for Senator Sanders at a critical time. There is no doubt that the heart attack amplified concerns people might have had about Senator Sanders and his health.”
Sroka added: “Whenever you have a situation like that, you want to show a new sort of energy and I think getting this endorsement at this critical time is a smart move and will undoubtedly be helpful.”