Everyone loves a good underdog story, and the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders has already become that. Regardless of whether the U.S. senator from Vermont wins the Democratic nomination or the general election after that, he’s grown from relative obscurity to being the dream candidate of (almost) every college student in America, along with plenty of other voters looking for social change from the top down.
Sanders will be 75 by the time Election Day rolls around, making him the oldest candidate in the race. If elected, he would also be the oldest person to hold the office. Sanders remains fairly quiet about his personal life, but there’s little question about why he’s running for president. “I have seen the promise of America in my own life. My parents would have never dreamed that their son would be a U.S. Senator, let alone run for president. But for too many of our fellow Americans, the dream of progress and opportunity is being denied by the grind of an economy that funnels all the wealth to the top,” Sanders said in his announcement speech, highlighting his focus on income inequality.
To some, he’s the crotchety guy from a small Northeastern state who’s up against a machine too big to fail. To others, he’s the grassroots activist who’s actually talking about the issues that matter to him and his supporters. Let’s take a look at some of the other characteristics behind the prickly demeanor.
1. He doesn’t care what you think about his personality
During every election cycle, Gallup and other polls like it take surveys to see which candidates are the most likable. It doesn’t always predict the winner, but it’s definitely a component. Sanders knows that personality is a factor in elections, but he personally doesn’t care whether you actually like him or not.
“People have to have confidence in their leadership. That goes without saying,” he said in a video interview with Rolling Stone. “But it is much more important to know the views of the candidates on the issues.” In the video (included above), Sanders goes on to say that President George W. Bush and his wife are extremely nice people, but that Bush will be remembered as one of the worst presidents in history because of the changes he made while in office.
Agree or disagree all you want, but Sanders pleads with his supporters and the public at large to know the issues. If you aren’t sure where Sanders stands on ones that are important to you, check out his campaign site, which breaks most of them down. Sanders is clear about what’s important to him, but he’s also made it his goal to figure out what’s important to his supporters. At the first town meeting in Iowa, one person asked about how he would regulate online poker. Sanders admitted not thinking too much about poker in general, but gave an answer anyway. “I think one of my kids does play a lot of poker. If the issue is, should corporations rip off poker players, the answer is no. See, everybody? One of the things you learn as a U.S. senator is, everybody has an issue.”
He’s an exact typecast for Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino and has an abrupt manner at times. But there’s no mistaking he’s passionate about the office he holds as a senator and believes he can do additional good as president. The haters can just get off his lawn.
2. He’s not crazy about all the attention to his hair
Sanders wants to talk to people, the media, whomever, about his platform and the issues. Those issues do not extend to his hair care, in Sanders opinion. “More stuff has been written about my hair than my infrastructure program or my college-education program — no question about that,” Sanders complained to a Rolling Stone writer.
That interview wasn’t the first time he’s spoken out about undue attention to his wispy white locks. In an August 2015 interview with The New York Times reporter Ana Marie Cox, he cut off questions about his hair – and anyone else’s.
NYT: Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?
Sanders: Hillary’s hair gets more scrutiny than my hair?
Sanders: Is that what you’re asking?
Sanders: O.K., Ana, I don’t mean to be rude here. I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, O.K.? Do you have serious questions?
Cox was asking in order to bring up the question of gendered questions in the race, but Sanders quickly denounced all such questions. “When the media worries about what Hillary’s hair looks like or what my hair looks like, that’s a real problem. We have millions of people who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who want to know what candidates can do to improve their lives, and the media will very often spend more time worrying about hair than the fact that we’re the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people,” Sanders said in response.
His frustration may be merited – we’ve all seen the posts detailing the whims of his wayward tufts. But in some ways, Sanders’s hairstyle has become part of his persona, whether he’d like it to be or not. At the very least, he can claim it’s unconventional, a bit like his platform itself.
3. He recorded a folk album
Sanders admits to being musically influenced by ’60s powerhouses like Motown and the Supremes, but also professed his love for Willie Nelson and the country music he’s come to appreciate. His iPad also contains the complete works of Beethoven.
And if you purchase the 1987 album We Shall Overcome, you’ll hear Sanders take center take center stage of the album’s namesake track. The album was created by a Burlington recording studio, and at the time was an effort to expand the studio’s presence by getting Sanders – then the mayor of Burlington for six years and counting – involved in the project.
“We had this intriguing mayor, a guy who was absolutely on a mission with everything he did,” music producer Todd Lockwood told NPR. “He was charismatic and had a powerful public image. But people didn’t really know that much about what his personal life was like. So I thought, well, here’s an opportunity to see the man behind the curtain.”
Sanders’s love of music, however, didn’t exactly translate into a songbird voice. “I realized pretty early on that Bernie is not a singer. That became pretty apparent right off the bat,” Lockwood said. Instead, the result is a “talking-blues approach” that works better overall.
But as with most things, Sanders says his musical talents should not be the focus. “If people are thinking of voting for me for my musical capabilities — not the right reason,” Sanders told NBC’s Lester Holt. “I have other attributes. Carrying a tune is not one of them.”
4. He’s used to close elections
He’s also used to losing a few. Politics didn’t welcome Sanders with open arms – at least at first. In the early ’70s he ran for a Senate seat twice and for governor of Vermont, never earning more than 6% of the vote. He then took a hiatus from campaigning until 1981, when he ran for mayor of Burlington as an independent candidate and won by just 10 votes, unseating a six-term incumbent Democrat. Sanders would then be re-elected three times before running for (and winning) a seat in the House of Representatives, followed by two terms in the Senate.
Sanders has never changed his party affiliation from being an independent candidate, and is the longest-serving independent in Congress. With that in mind, it should make sense that he’s comfortable being a bit of an outsider, even though he’s been in Washington politics for decades. Sanders frequently refers to himself as a “democratic socialist,” a stance which he describes as leveling the playing field for everyone.
5. He’s smoked marijuana a few times
In fact, Sanders introduced a bill in November to the Senate that would decriminalize marijuana on the federal level and allow states to decide for themselves about medical or recreational use. Because all marijuana is technically illegal in any amount and in any form in the eyes of the national government, many states are leery of passing their own legislation to allow it. Only a few states have thrown caution to the wind to allow recreational marijuana, though many more have permitted some forms of medical use.
Even though Sanders is championing legislation for marijuana freedoms, he probably won’t be lighting up himself. “I coughed a lot,” he said in an interview with Yahoo News’ Katie Couric. “I smoked marijuana twice — didn’t quite work for me.”
Still, Sanders is skeptical about and long-term issues with marijuana in general. “It’s not my thing, but it is the thing of a whole lot of people,” he said. “And if you want to make the argument that maybe marijuana is less harmful to health than tobacco, I think you’d probably be making a correct argument. Some may disagree, but I think it’s probably true.”
Despite eschewing cannabis on a personal level, it hasn’t stopped others from making a joke or two about it. Sanders became of the butt of one of President Barack Obama’s jokes at last year’s White House Correspondent Dinner. “Bernie Sanders might run. I like Bernie. Bernie’s an interesting guy. Apparently, some folks want to see a pot-smoking socialist in the White House. We could get a third Obama term after all,” Obama said.