Bernie Sanders Is Making Changes for 2020, but His Desire for Control Remains

He will be talking about himself — at least if his advisers have their way. His top aides are not just white men. And unlike last time, when he enjoyed playing the insurgent foil to an establishment-backed politician, Senator Bernie Sanders is now eagerly projecting himself as the front-runner.

In 2016, Mr. Sanders had little choice but to run the race of an outsider — disorganized, decentralized and improvisational. But as the Vermont senator formally kicks off his second presidential bid with an appearance in his native Brooklyn on Saturday, this much is apparent: He is at least attempting to mount a different kind of campaign.

Yet even as he builds a more sophisticated and modern organization, Mr. Sanders’s iconoclasm and possessiveness over his brand of democratic socialism has created turmoil in his own ranks. His media consulting team abruptly quit this week after the senator and his wife, Jane, expressed displeasure with the sleek announcement ad the advisers produced, deeming it inauthentic, and instead booked a Vermont studio to record a no-frills, nearly 11-minute video that Mr. Sanders wrote himself, according to multiple Democratic officials familiar with the matter.

The clash was a reminder that Mr. Sanders, dating to his first campaigns for office in Burlington, Vt., has always charted his own political course. But in interviews over the last week, his aides and advisers said the 77-year-old Independent has consented to some strategic changes as he tries to win over a party that in the Trump era is not singularly focused on economic inequality.

His campaign aims to capitalize on the elements that made Mr. Sanders a phenomenon in 2016 — big crowds, a small-dollar fund-raising army — but also to more visibly match an electoral moment defined by inclusion, identity and issues related to both.

A central part of the plan, aides and advisers said, involves persuading Mr. Sanders to reveal more of his personal story, starting with the rally in Brooklyn, near the rent-controlled apartment where he grew up, the son of a Jewish immigrant, and on Sunday in Chicago, where he went to college and joined civil rights protests.

The rallies, those close to Mr. Sanders hope, will allow him to showcase his upbringing — something he has long resisted — in the context of how it has shaped the policy issues voters now know so well, injecting freshness to his by-now familiar message and providing voters a new window into who he is and what he represents.

“That has not been his practice in the past — he is much more focused on the ideas and the policies he advocates,” Jeff Weaver, who was Mr. Sanders’s 2016 campaign manager and is still his closest adviser, said in an interview. “But when you are running for president, you are not just electing a pile of policy papers.”

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Mr. Sanders’s strategists are keenly aware that the early stages of his run could offer him the best opportunity to shore up supporters and quickly establish him as the candidate to beat. The new approach could also help him compete with opponents like Senator Kamala Harris and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who have both made their origin stories a key part of their message. And it could satisfy voters who crave a deeper connection to their officials.

Other changes are also underway on the campaign. Following pledges from advisers to ensure a more diverse staff than in 2016, particularly in its upper ranks, Mr. Sanders hired a new campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, the former A.C.L.U. political director and the first Muslim to ever run a presidential campaign, as well as a new political director, Analilia Mejia, a progressive activist. The campaign also said it had brought on a diverse group of new co-chairs, including Nina Turner, the president of the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution, and Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan.

“One of the biggest differences,” said Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to Mr. Sanders, “is we’re being very determinative about making sure that this campaign reflects the face of America and the fabric of our country.”

But just days into Mr. Sanders’s second run, his contempt for mainstream party politics and tactics obscured a rollout that brought him $10 million in the first week of the campaign.

Last Monday, the day before he began his candidacy, Mr. Sanders arrived at a Burlington studio with a script for the announcement he had crafted himself that reflected his longstanding stump speech. “Our campaign is about taking on the powerful special interests that dominate our economic and political life,” he said, speaking in front of a screen with an image of a superimposed bookcase.

Mark Longabaugh, Julian Mulvey and Tad Devine — Mr. Sanders’s media consultants and three of his top advisers from the 2016 race — were informed only at the last minute of the change of plans and they were enraged, according to Democrats directly familiar with the episode. They had produced a much shorter video with higher production value.

But Mr. Sanders and his wife did not like how he appeared in the video and were uneasy with some of the content that did not feel true to his unvarnished message, these Democrats said.

The Sanders’s instincts served them well, at least in terms of how the spot would be received by his supporters: A blast email on the day of his announcement with the text from the do-it-yourself ad drew an enthusiastic response. Even though there was no direct fund-raising request in the ad, it helped Mr. Sanders raise a record $6 million in the first day of his campaign.

But it marked a humiliation for his consultants, who quit after concluding that Mr. Sanders was not willing to empower them.

It is not clear how much Mr. Sanders will ultimately bend to the wishes of his current advisers. But his new team sees enormous opportunity in his twin rallies this weekend — platforms to showcase big, diverse crowds of supporters, which could address questions that have dogged him since 2016 about his appeal to nonwhites.

And though his rally in Brooklyn will be something of a homecoming, it is also a chance for him to make an aggressive play for young, white urbanites at the same time that another one of their favorites, Beto O’Rourke, is expected to enter the race.

Even so much as acknowledging his biography would be a change for a senator who has long rejected sharing anything about his life. But his advisers are betting it could help set him apart from a crowded field of candidates, many of whom support the same policies that had made him unique in 2016.

At his Brooklyn rally, Mr. Sanders is expected to at least nod to the years when he played stickball in the street and arguments between his parents over money were commonplace. In Chicago, his advisers hope he will talk about his civil rights activism there, including how he was arrested during a protest on the South Side.

But above all, the rallies will test just how much Mr. Sanders, whose message has largely remained the same throughout his political career, is willing to evolve, if at all. Those closest to the senator acknowledge that he is unlikely to change, even as he recognizes the importance of sharing his personal story.

“As he sees it, his importance is his policies — what he sees can happen in America that is drastically better and different from what has been,” Larry Sanders, his older brother, said in a phone interview this week. “That’s his central focus.”

The elder Mr. Sanders, who now lives in Oxford, England, recalled pieces of his brother’s life that might resonate with voters. Summers at the Ten Mile River scout camp outside the city. Sunday morning bagels and lox. “I’ve always been convinced,” he said, “that there is a tremendous amount of Brooklyn in Bernard.”

Some who know Mr. Sanders remain unconvinced he will emphasize his biography this weekend, despite the settings. Mr. Sanders’s ties to the borough since leaving it after one year at Brooklyn College are somewhat tenuous. Though his accent betrays his origins, he has spent his entire political career in Vermont, whose winter climate he often recalls on the campaign trail.

Even if Mr. Sanders does talk more about himself, his competition presents a new set of challenges that his own biography may only compound.

“At the end of the day, he is still an old white man,” said Tracy Sefl, a veteran Democratic strategist and formerly a senior adviser to the super PAC Ready for Hillary. “So there are lots of other things that he wants to talk about besides those parts of his identity.”