My Visit To Bernie World On The Eve of the New Hampshire Primary

In anticipation of tomorrow’s first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, I spent the weekend crisscrossing the western side of the state going up and down the Connecticut River valley, visiting candidate rallies and talking to voters.  Here’s what I found, beginning with two Bernie Sanders’ rallies in Hanover and Claremont.

Polls suggest that Sanders has consolidated his support, and nothing I saw at his two rallies yesterday contradicted that.  The Hanover event took place at the downtown Inn just off the Dartmouth campus.  The main room where Bernie spoke was filled when we arrived, and after going through a security check (the only one we have seen at any candidate event so far) we were shunted with the overflow crowd to a side room where we could view Bernie on television.  I estimate that there were more than 500 people here.  The Claremont event was also well attended, with close to 600 people in the high school gymnasium.  (This was about half the size of the crowd I saw there at my first Trump rally in 2016 however.) Here’s a shot of the Claremont rally.

Since I left the first Bernie event in Hanover to see Andrew Yang (we went back to Bernie’s first rally when Yang finished), who was next door at Dartmouth College, I’ll focus my remarks here at Bernie’s Claremont rally.

Bernie is far more sedate at his rallies than he is on the debate stage, only raising his voice when he wants to signal moral outrage. Instead, at Claremont it was his preliminary speakers, particularly Vermont Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman and Sanders’ campaign coordinator Nina Turner, who stoked the crowd’s emotions with messages alternating between soaring hope for the future mingled with anger at the injustices in the world.  The crowd, mostly middle aged but with a fair smattering of youngsters sprinkled in was solidly in Bernie’s corner as much as I could tell – this was more of a giant pep rally designed to motivate the base one day before the primary than an effort to expand Bernie’s coalition.

After introducing members of his family including Jane, “the next First Lady of the United States” Bernie seamlessly launched into his standard stump speech, hitting all the major themes of his campaign, and with the familiar raised arms and finger jabbing when he wanted to emphasize a point.  He began by thanking New Hampshire voters, reminding them that it was his victory here in 2016 that really propelled him to national prominence.  Here he quoted Nelson Mandela, saying “Everything is impossible until it happens.”  And then he moved to the familiar litany of issues: the need for a higher minimum wage of at least $15; higher pay for public school teachers of at least $60,000 annually; making public colleges tuition free; eliminating student debt; eliminating tax breaks for the 1%; the need to combat climate change; and health care for all as a human right.  Regarding health care, he touted the elimination of all “absurd” deductibles, lower pharmaceutical costs, no premiums and expanded coverage for all. The goal is to put money in the hands of care providers, including doctors and nurses, rather than giving it to government bureaucrats. As he made each point, the crowd would burst into applause, and the talk was punctuated by shouts of  “That’s right!” and “Yes!” from an energized group of supporters.

As we left the hall to hurry north to an Elizabeth Warren rally, Bernie was still going strong, discussing how his health plan would make eyeglasses, hearing aids and dental coverage less expensive.  I will say more about Warren’s rally in a separate email, but it’s worth comparing their messages in order to understand why her support has evidently plateaued (if polls are to be believed), while Bernie’s is consolidating here in New Hampshire.  

As I noted in an extended twitter feed last night, there is a beguiling simplicity to Bernie’s world view.  Issues like free college tuition, higher minimum wage and health care for all aren’t policy options whose details must be negotiated – they are basic human rights, and thus nonnegotiable.  And since they are human rights, there is no plausible excuse for anyone to oppose these policies.  This allows Bernie to portray the opposition as evil and motivated principally by greed. Indeed, Bernie explicitly incorporates villains into his speech.  He notes that in his office they openly debate who is more corrupt:  Wall St., the insurance companies or the pharmaceutical industry?  “I think the pharmaceuticals are and here’s why” he says before castigating them for knowingly causing the opioid crisis by putting profits before people.   “When they learned these drugs were addictive, they spent more money on hiring salesmen than on treatment!” he thundered.

The moral certitude animating Bernie and his followers goes a long way to explaining the social media scourge that is the “Bernie Bros”: typically a white male who brooks no opposition to Bernie or his message and is not shy about making that known.  But it is too simplistic to reduce his support to this caricature.  Many of my very thoughtful students are strong supporters, and it is easy to understand why.  They are entering a world in which their life prospects seem more dismal than what their parents encountered.  Climate change, job loss driven by automation, and a general uncertainty about the future clouds their perspective.  But Bernie’s message is an antidote to this bleak prognosis.  He shares the younger generation’s anger at what previous generations have left them, but he also offers hope through a message of change – one rooted in identifying the evildoers and overcoming them through a mass movement.  Most importantly – and here’s where I think Bernie is drawing support from Warren – Bernie’s voice is authentic.  His message is one he has voiced since he first narrowly won election as Burlington’s mayor more than four decades ago.

Will it work?  Are Bernie’s policies feasible?  What is the alternative, his supporters ask?  The status quo is unacceptable.  There is no room for compromise when it comes to basic rights for all.  You are with Bernie – or you are against humanity.  It is that simple.  If the polls are accurate, Bernie is poised to win New Hampshire tomorrow – the RealClearPolitics poll of polls has him firmly in the lead, and his support consolidating during the last two weeks.

But as I noted in an interview on WCAX’s You Can Quote Me with Darren Perron yesterday, a victory in New Hampshire is only tantamount to Bernie holding serve.  In 2016 in a largely two-person primary race, Bernie won 60% of the New Hampshire vote, easily besting Hillary Clinton by more than 20%.  He won’t come close to that tomorrow, given the multiple candidates.  And a victory in New Hampshire will not quell the criticism that Bernie has not expanded his coalition, particularly among voters of color who form a crucial and growing part of the Democratic coalition.

And that points to the potential weakness to Bernie’s world view – one that more moderate Democrats, particularly South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, are trying to exploit.  Both are making the case that you can’t retake the presidency by dividing the world into good and evil – as Klobuchar says repeatedly, “We won’t beat the divider by out dividing him.”  Sanders’ followers are deeply committed to him – but that commitment comes at a potential cost.  They see no room for compromise, and no justification for opposition to Bernie’s message.  It remains to be seen whether that take-no-prisoners strategy will expand Bernie’s coalition – or drive potential supporters elsewhere.

Next up: Mayor Pete and Amy too!  Meanwhile I leave you with this shot of Jeff Zeleney, on a box, trying to make sense of a Bernie rally.

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