Bernie Sanders is saying 'millionaires' less often, one way his 2020 message has changed

Key Points
  • In the 2020 campaign, Bernie Sanders appears to be saying "millionaires" less often and focusing mostly on "billionaires."
  • The senator has famously railed against the wealthy in his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, but has made some tweaks to his message this year.
  • Sanders himself became a millionaire in 2016 as he vaulted into the national consciousness. Book deals drove more money into his pockets.
Bernie Sanders wins the New Hampshire primary

As a Bernie Sanders basked in a New Hampshire primary win , he reeled off the familiar tenets of his "political revolution."

The speech after the Granite State helped make Sanders the early favorite in the 2020 Democratic race sounded familiar to those who have tracked the senator since he stormed onto the national stage during the 2016 election. The Vermont senator declared "health care is a human right, not a privilege." Sanders called to cancel student debt. He promised to take on Wall Street, drugmakers and fossil fuel companies.

But it lacked one of the signature phrases voters have associated with Sanders and his Brooklyn accent: a knock on the "millionaires and billionaires" corrupting the U.S. political system. Recently, his rhetoric has focused more on the wealthier end of the U.S. populace.

"We're taking on billionaires and we're taking on candidates funded by billionaires," Sanders said.

As Sanders, himself a recently minted millionaire, brings his campaign to pivotal nominating contests in Nevada, South Carolina and beyond, he continues to drill into what he calls the corrosive influence of the wealthy and corporations on U.S. politics. Even so, he has tweaked parts of his message since his 2016 campaign.

After an insurgent run four years ago marked by criticism of the Democratic Party, he has made more calls for Democratic unity since the nominating contests started this month. He has urged supporters to back whoever becomes the party nominee. Of course, parts of his 2020 campaign have also become more specific to President Donald Trump.

"We are going to unite together and defeat the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country," Sanders said after his victory in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.

A change in messaging

The Democratic debates show how his messaging on millionaires has changed. While the Sanders campaign has thrived in grassroots organizing, the events offer candidates some of their best chances to reach a national audience.

In at least two of the debates against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primary, Sanders targeted "millionaires and billionaires," according to transcripts.

"Millionaires and billionaires are pouring unbelievable sums of money into the political process in order to fund super PACs and to elect candidates who represent their interests, not the interests of working people," he said in an October 2015 debate, according to The New York Times.

Sanders has targeted billionaires as often as ever in the eight 2020 Democratic debates that began in June. But he has not said "millionaires" during the events, according to transcript searches.

It's not just on the debate stage. Sanders' campaign Twitter account last tweeted about millionaires on July 31. It used the word five times in 2019, down from 10 times in 2015, the year before the last presidential election.

Sanders' separate Senate Twitter account has tweeted about millionaires twice this year. He has also not stopped railing against the "1%" — the top tier of U.S. earners that includes all millionaires.

The Bloomberg effect?

It is unclear what drove the apparent move to use the term less. The Sanders campaign did not respond to requests to comment.

The senator himself became a millionaire in 2016 as he vaulted into the national consciousness. Book deals drove more money into his pockets.

"But I think your question should ask, well, now that you wrote a book, you made money, is that going to mean that you change your policies?" Sanders asked during a CNN town hall last year. "Well, you're looking at somebody who not only voted against Trump's disastrous tax plan — 83% of the benefits going to the top 1% — but I have and will continue in this campaign to fight for progressive taxation."

Sanders' focus on billionaires may reflect former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's entry into the race, said Doug Sosnik, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton. Bloomberg, who has jumped in national primary polls as he funnels tens of millions of dollars into ads, has given Sanders a more direct target for his rhetoric than usual.

Bloomberg is one of two billionaires in the Democratic race, along with activist and former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.

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