PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire — Forty-eight hours before the primary vote in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders is playing to crowds in the Granite State like a veteran sitcom player who’s just won his first Emmy.
Sanders knows what his supporters want and he knows how to deliver his applause lines with heart and humor. His campaign’s surprising resiliency has forced Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton to work harder to secure the hearts and minds of liberal Democrats.
Coming off his strong second-place showing in Iowa last week, Sanders is clearly enjoying his role as the second banana who suddenly emerged as a fan favorite. The size of his crowds and hyper-active media coverage of campaign 2016 has afforded him a 24/7 platform to rail against what he sees as the pernicious influence of Wall Street money in politics, corporate America’s tax loopholes, the gaping maw of income inequality, the high cost of health care and college education.
Sanders talks tough about a leading a “political revolution,” but he looks and sounds like everybody’s favorite kooky uncle from Vermont by way of Brooklyn. The R-word coming from a guy with white hair wearing a blue V-neck sweater doesn’t sound as scary as it might from someone else.
“We’re going to take on the billionaire class,” Sanders told a packed gymnasium on Sunday afternoon at Great Bay Community College. “Our government belongs to us, not just a small number of the wealthy few. If we don’t allow the Donald Trumps of the world to divide us up we can defeat them.”
The Sanders show plays like a sitcom because his ultra-liberal platform makes his candidacy seem like such a moon-shot in a general election. But his supporters adore him for that plain-spoken fearlessness, even if they know the season-long arc will likely end with a toast to “fighting the good fight.”
In New Hampshire this week, however, the Bernie faithful feel energized by the growing strength in their numbers.
Kat Richter, 30 of Philadelphia, came to New Hampshire late Saturday night with her mother to volunteer for the Sanders campaign. She hadn’t even heard of the senator from Vermont six months ago, and she was surprised how quickly she switched her allegiance from Clinton.
“I thought as a feminist I was totally biased toward Hillary,” Richter told Variety. His devotion to talking about climate change and moving the country to a single-payer health care system impressed Richter, who is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Rowan College in New Jersey, in addition to her part-time pursuits as a freelance writer and dancer.
“I see how hard it is for my students to get ahead,” Richter said. “I think Bernie would work to help my students get a fair shot.”
There’s no doubt that the Sanders campaign has fired up the imaginations of many a T-shirt maker. Janel Myers, who attended the Portsmouth rally with her husband Chris, wore a “Bernie For the Future” shirt done with the “Back to the Future” motif.
Chris Myers volunteered that the last person to get his vote in a presidential election was George Bush in 2004. His concern about “Wall Street contributions” influencing public policy has turned him into a Sanders supporter. “I think he’s a unique opportunity for us to get someone in there looking out for America,” he said.
On the stump, Sanders ran through his usual litany of issues and proposals: raising the minimum wage to $15; making health care “a right not a privilege”; making public colleges and universities tuition-free; prosecuting CEOs for white-collar crimes; and overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision from 2010 that lifted curbs on political donations. He called for a “massive transfer of wealth” from the “one-tenth of the 1%” to help pay for it all, in addition to closing corporate loopholes. He criticized the “corporate media” for shortcomings in “determining what is important and not important” but he didn’t belabor those barbs.
His 45-minute speech was punctuated at with chants of “Ber-nie, Ber-nie” and “Feel the Bern.” A few men in the crowd shouted “preach” when he spoke of the corrupting effect of wealth in politics, and the “rigged economy” that keeps middle-class incomes stagnant while the rich get richer. Goldman Sachs, Walmart and the wealth of the Walton family and the Koch brothers were his biggest targets, to the delight of the crowd.
Sanders mostly steered clear of Clinton-bashing, an issue that has become a rising concern to Democratic strategists. He made an oblique reference to Clinton having accepted six-figure speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. He didn’t use her name but the crowd got the inference and responded with a “boo.” He did call his opponent out toward the end of his speech while bragging about his peacenik record of opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “I was right on that issue. Hillary was wrong!”
The crowd that gave up Super Bowl Sunday pre-game activities to show their support was undeniably youthful, for the most part, and passionate. There were plenty of people who brought young children — though many of the littlest Bernie supporters got awfully fidgety about 20 minutes into his speech.
Among the biggest responses Sanders got was when he asked members of the crowd to shout out how much student debt they are carrying. “How much you got?” he said. The responses, as if bidding in a charity auction, went as high as $111,000. “OK, you won,” Sanders said, to much applause.
(Pictured: Kat Richter, right, and a fellow Bernie Sanders volunteer outside Sunday’s get-out-the-vote rally in Portsmouth, N.H.)