Despite projecting confidence at the prospect of facing the senator, the president has asked multiple advisers how Sanders would perform in battleground states like Pennsylvania.
In public, President Donald Trump has fixated on mocking Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as “crazy” and has focused on assuring supporters of how badly he’d crush the left-wing senator in a general election and protect them from Sanders’ creeping socialism.
In private, Trump has often expressed different worries about the 2020 candidate.
In the past two months, the president has repeatedly asked advisers, in and out of the White House, about how Sanders polls, or would likely perform, in critical battleground states, specifically Pennsylvania, according to two people who’ve independently heard him ask about it. At times, Trump has asked about Sanders’ prospects even in the absence of a current public or internal poll on the matter.
It’s hardly the first time Trump has talked to his friends and top lieutenants about Sanders’ potential formidability heading into an election year. As The Daily Beast reported last year, Trump had on multiple occasions told longtime associates and Republican donors that running against “socialism” in 2020 may not be “so easy” due to its populist appeal. At a private event with donors late last year, the president said, according to a source in the room, that “you can have someone who loves Trump, but many people love free stuff, too,” adding that if Sanders or other “socialist” candidates promise U.S. voters—particularly young voters—that they will cancel their debt, “that’s a tough one [to run against].”
But at Tuesday night’s rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the president stuck to the crowd-pleasers when it came to Sanders. “Bernie is surging, Bernie is surging,” Trump said, eliciting lusty boos from the audience. In several recent surveys, including a Des Moines Register poll, one of the few released out of the first caucus state in the lead-up to the Feb. 3 event, Sanders came out on top. In New Hampshire, he’s been a leading neighboring state contender for weeks.