Feeling the Bern

Yes, it's true. This past weekend, I joined 11,000 other people in Phoenix to "feel the Bern," as the supporters of Bernie Sanders would put it. Sanders held a rally in the city immediately after the Netroots Nation conference concluded, which made it pretty easy for me to attend (and take a few photos). Netroots routinely draws a crowd of around 3,000, so even if everyone from the conference went to the Bernie rally (actually, not everyone did), the conference crowd could only roughly have been about a quarter of the people there to see Bernie. The rest were locals from a very red state. All there to feel the Bern, as it were.

All photographs © Chris Weigant 2015

This applied to both young and old. Since I got there a bit early, I was able to circulate among the people streaming in to see Sanders. I saw a child working on his own "Feel The Bern!" sign, and talked to a woman who told me Sanders was only the second "real" politician she had ever been excited about (the first being Eugene McCarthy).

The Sanders campaign had a certain air of newness about it, as many of the staffers I talked to (not just the local volunteers) had only been working at their jobs a few days. There were a few moments of confusion, but for the most part they did a great job of putting on such a major event at short notice. From all appearances, the Sanders campaign team is growing by the day.

The venue chosen for the rally had been changed several times -- each time an upgrade, as the estimates for the number who would show up grew. They finally wound up in the convention center, in a cavernous room down in the basement.

There was as steady stream of people coming in, and eventually the size of the crowd easily justified the use of such an enormous space. Below is a view from the front of the stage, just before the orating got underway.

The theme of the signs (and of the hats) was to portray Bernie as a modern-day Robin Hood. Green peaked caps were popular, as were the big signs with Bernie's face wearing one. It's pretty easy to understand the metaphor -- Bernie is championing taking from the rich and giving to the poor.

Once the crowd was fully assembled, they didn't have long to wait to see what they had come for. Instead of lots of minor politicians all giving mini-speeches to build up to the main event, there was only one short introduction and then Sanders took the stage, to loud cheering and wild applause.

Now, I have to admit, I had just spent time formatting the speech Bernie Sanders made to announce his campaign (for the column series I ran last week), so I was pretty familiar with the content. His stump speech hasn't changed in any radical way since then, but he has indeed sharpened it up considerably. He's added a few key issues that were missing, his metaphors and examples were much more concise, and the speech itself flowed well and only faltered a couple of times. Most of it was met with thunderous approval from the crowd, but then you'd probably expect that at any candidate's rally.

What is notable about Bernie's stump speech is that he doesn't shy away from giving specifics. There was very little lofty language full of vague platitudes -- instead, there were a lot of old-fashioned concrete campaign promises. Bernie Sanders is not a man who is afraid to state exactly what he wants to achieve and how he wants to get these things done. Just to give one example, Sanders is unafraid to throw his marker down in support of a $15-an-hour minimum wage, rather than just giving lip service to the nebulous idea that "the minimum wage should be raised." It is this specificity that truly sets Bernie Sanders apart, not only from the rest of the Democratic field but in fact from almost all the other presidential candidates running. You can easily see why Bernie's ready and willing to debate both Democrats and Republicans, because he's not only worked out the specifics of his agenda, but he's actually been fighting for decades for many of the items on it.

Bernie Sanders, to put this another way, doesn't need a focus group or a poll to tell him what he ought to stand for. He already knows what he stands for, and he'll freely tell you exactly what that is. This authenticity is likely what is drawing in such enormous crowds to hear him speak at such an early phase in the presidential contest. Bernie's not only beating Hillary Clinton and all the Democrats in crowd sizes, he's also beating the entire Republican field (unless you believe Donald Trump's laughable crowd estimates, which I have to say I do not). This populist enthusiasm has, so far, been largely sneered at by the inside-the-Beltway media, but the longer it continues (and the more it grows) the harder it is going to be to ignore.

The question is whether Bernie will hit a ceiling of support or not. Is it possible for him to defeat the Clinton machine? Well, it's been done before, just ask Barack Obama. However, history really isn't on Bernie's side, since most "movement" presidential candidates ultimately fail in their bids for the nomination.

At this point in time -- and I'd be the first to admit that this could quickly change -- Bernie Sanders has reached roughly the same point that Ron Paul reached with Republicans during his final run. Actually, this is a better place to be in than the one Ron's son Rand now finds himself in, since it means fervent, true-believer support from an average of about 15 percent of the party's base voters. Bernie is successfully firing up this segment of the base. The crowds are adoring, and they seem fully committed. These people will vote with glee and enthusiasm, rather than holding their nose and voting for the least bad choice (to put it another way). They'll be gladly voting for someone, instead of against anyone.

Will this be enough, or will Bernie Sanders become the next Howard Dean? I have to admit I don't have an answer to that question. Hillary Clinton, it must be said, is a formidable opponent, with a whopping amount of money to spend. The real test for Bernie is likely going to come at the first nationally-televised debate. There, he will be able to get his message out past the snide mainstream media filter, and speak his specifics directly to the voting public.

This will be the point where the polling will indicate what's going to happen next. If Sanders starts to really eat into Hillary's overwhelming lead after a debate or two, then his candidacy is going to look a lot more plausible to a lot more voters. Anything can happen in politics, most especially on a debate stage. If the contrast is Bernie giving specifics of what he'd fight for versus Hillary refusing to commit to anything solid, it could change a lot of minds.

Of course, a lot of minds have already been changed. I saw 11,000 of them last weekend. All feeling the Bern together.

 

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