Hillary Clinton ‘feels the Bern’ in Iowa and New Hampshire
Bernie Sanders has fired up the grassroots and is rattling the Democratic frontrunner
US senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is surrounded by students following a town hall meeting at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Photograph: CJ Gunther/EPA
The queue of people snakes its way around Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts.
Hundreds of people, mostly university students and younger, brave temperatures reaching six degrees below, all to get a glimpse of the man leading a surging political campaign.
The lines of people are almost Trump-esque. Just as the businessman sees himself leading a conservative revolution on the right, Bernie Sanders, the senator giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the race to be the Democratic presidential candidate, believes he is leading another revolution, of grassroots progressives on the left.
This is New Hampshire, and geographically and ideologically it is Sanders country.
His message, delivered with the passion of a politician who has fought for it all his life, has fired up the Democratic left.
His crusade against worsening economic inequality, Wall Street, climate change, a corrupt campaign financing system, a billionaire class of donors and discrimination against women and minorities has electrified a segment of the party who see Clinton as more of the same.
A year ago, few would have thought that the energetic alternative to Clinton was a 74-year-old socialist Senate backbencher from Vermont, transplanted from Brooklyn.
However, he is eating away at her lead in Iowa, the first state to nominate a candidate in the February 1st caucuses, and is already well ahead of her in the polls in New Hampshire, the second nominating state which votes in a primary election on February 9th.
“I like his integrity: what you see is what you get and I think that is refreshing,” says Carol Starunko (66) from Vermont who has been queueing for half an hour in the cold hoping to get a seat for Sanders’s town hall meeting inside a building on the Dartmouth campus.
“He is trying to support the youth and the middle class, and I think that is something that most of the other candidates aren’t doing,” says Isabella Yager from nearby Lebanon who at 15 isn’t old enough to vote yet.
Hundreds more are packed into overflow rooms, watching on television.
“He is not the typical politician,” says Andrew Weckstein (19), a Dartmouth student lucky enough to snag a seat at the Thursday evening rally.
“His spouse wasn’t president, he is not from a dynasty. It is cool that we are voting for the first time in our lifetimes for someone who hasn’t played the political game.”
This is what has made Sanders popular. He has allowed the left of the Democratic Party to vent a lot of pent-up energy and frustration.
“For progressives who claimed a great victory when Obama defeated Clinton in the 2008 primaries, they are coming away from the Obama administration ambivalent,” says Dante Scala, a politics professor at the University of New Hampshire.
“A lot of them recognise that Clinton is probably going to be the nominee but nonetheless see Sanders as a person who can carry a message to Hillary Clinton and to the Democratic Party that they cannot be taken for granted.”
Inside Sanders’s town hall meeting, Paul Kirk, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and one-time senator for Massachusetts, introduces the senator after praising him for “matching principle with performance” and for not playing by the rules.
“‘Feel the Bern’ of a virtual grassroots political prairie fire sparked by patriotic citizens fanning the flames of civil and civic engagement,” says Kirk, using the senator’s catchphrase that encapsulates his contagious campaign.
The septuagenarian senator takes the stage to loud cheers, a sustained standing ovation and chants of “Bernie! Bernie!”
Sanders opens by telling the crowd that eight months ago when he launched his campaign, he had no money and very little name recognition nationally and was running against a candidate deemed to be the inevitable nominee of the Democratic Party.
“Well, a lot has changed since then,” he says, to wild cheers. “It turns out what was considered to be inevitable, eh, may not quite be so inevitable.”
Again there is warm applause from his supporters.
Sanders’s strong performance in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire has led the Clinton camp to come out swinging.
She has escalated her attacks on his record on gun control legislation and his plan to introduce universal healthcare, strangely moving to his right.
“The idea that a long-time supporter of comprehensive healthcare reform would criticise Senator Sanders for a single-payer system is kind of ridiculous,” says one long-time Clinton supporter who fears Sanders’s success in the polls might overshadow her own campaign.
The Clinton and Sanders camps have produced ads, which although they don’t mention each other, point fingers at their respective records and positions on issues.
Clinton jabs Sanders for his votes on gun control, while the Sanders ad indirectly targets her for her ties to Wall Street.
“There are two Democratic visions for regulating Wall Street,” he says in the ad against images of bankers and bags of money. “One says it’s okay to take millions from big banks and then tell them what to do.”
The Clinton team has reacted angrily, saying Sanders has broken his pledge not to run negative ads in the campaign.
Sanders is walking a tightrope between outlining differences and attacking her.
“I have never run a negative radio or television ad in my life. It is my very strong hope that I never will,” he told reporters in Hanover.
Inside his town hall meeting, taking on Wall Street and big corporate interests are a recurring theme in the Sanders sales pitch.
“You want a radical idea?” he asks the crowd.
Shouts of “Yeah!” and “Give it to us!” come back at him.
“How about creating an economy that works for the middle class rather than a handful of billionaires?”
Statistics showing the uneven distribution of wealth in the US trip off Sanders’s tongue.
There is “something profoundly wrong” when the 20 wealthiest people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half, 150 million people, he says to stunned silence.
These are the fruits of a fired-up and widely spread grassroots campaign.
“We are running a campaign which is a people’s campaign supported by ordinary people and funded by ordinary people, and that is exactly what the political revolution that we are fighting for is all about,” he says.
The polls show that a Sanders win in 16 days in Iowa and in New Hampshire nine days later are far from unthinkable.
If that happens, his challenge is continuing the fight to South Carolina and beyond.
After speaking for an hour, Sanders ends his town hall meeting with a plea to his New Hampshire supporters to get out and cast their vote on February 9th.
“Let’s come out to vote; let’s make the political revolution,” he says, before being mobbed on stage by dozens of students looking to shake his hand or take a selfie with their insurgent-in-chief.