As 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders last week introduced fresh policy proposals like his Green New Deal and a new plan to revitalize labor during a high-profile campaign swing that stretched from early-voting Iowa to the delegate-rich primary state of California, one of the senator's top advisors and surrogates, national co-chair Nina Turner, was on the U.S. East Coast spreading the campaign's message and listening to voter concerns at small town halls like the one she held in Portland, Maine on Thursday.
Just blocks from the Common Dreams offices in the downtown area, Turner hosted a small crowd of just over 120 people who filled the seats inside the meeting room at the historic Mechanics Hall building, where she told them that what's needed more than anything right now is a "moment of national transcendence for the United States of America"—a moment she said only the people, inspired and working together, can create.
"People got it wrong if they don't understand. It's not just about who has the best ideas, it's about who can excite."
Sitting for a brief interview following the town hall, Turner explained that such a transcendent moment is required because so many people she meets nationwide are feeling so worn down by the harsh reality and "heaviness" they feel living in the era of President Donald Trump.
"It hasn't even been four years but it feels like it's been eight already," Turner said.
"So we're going to need the next president not just to have good plans," she continued, "but also to have a mindset that recaptures the imagination of the American people and remind them that of the all the great things that we're fighting for in this particular moment of America's history and the world history, that it is going to take all of us and that we can do it."
Acknowledging that Americans throughout the country's history have overcome many difficult obstacles and dark times, Turner said it is now time to do that again. People need to imagine a place, she said, where civil conversations can take place once again and "imagine a place where we can dream bigger dreams."
Offering the issue of healthcare as one example—and the specific call by Sanders for Medicare for All—Turner said the people she meets on the campaign trail are not afraid of bold solutions to pressing issues that impact their daily lives.
"The best way I can describe it," she said, "is by telling the story a good friend of mine shared with me. She was 24 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now at that time you had to be off your parents' insurance at the age of twenty-five and her birthday was less than two weeks after the diagnosis." And what the friend was advised, Turner continued, raising her hands and shaking her head: "Quit school and get on welfare and maybe you might get the medical coverage that you need to save your life—to preserve your life."
She explained that she hears stories like this all across the country. "Everybody has some pre-existing condition—that's called being human," said Turner and that is why she believes the campaign's message is resonating so much for people.
"We're asking people to believe that in the United States of America we can have a system that is run by the government and not by corporations, or that you could have healthcare that's not attached to your job—that's a big leap," she said. And while that can be "a lot for people to imagine that," Turner added, "Yeah. People are ready to hear that."
As polls have consistently showed, Medicare for All remains a widely supported solution (even across party lines) to the nation's healthcare woes—especially if the question is phrased without the baggage of industry-friendly framing.
Turner believes that Sanders has a lot to do with the movement on the issue in recent years—but that it wasn't easy, she said.
"Sanders started this journey a long time ago," she explained, to elevate a single-payer solution nationally when he ran for president in 2016.
"Look at it now," said Turner. "You can't find—or there are very few—Democrats running that don't have some version of Medicare for All, because they know this is what's on the hearts and minds of the people. Now there's only one candidate that's got the real deal, but everybody's talking about healthcare."
Turner also said Sanders continues to be a leader when it comes to the other top policy concern for many voters: the planetary climate crisis—an issue she said best exemplifies the need for a politics that is intersectional and a candidate who is transformative.
From before 2016, through that campaign when he called it the most existential threat to the country and the world, and up until today, argued Turner, Sanders "has always been there" on climate.
"He was on the cutting edge then and he is on the cutting edge now," she explained. "The senator understands we can't have any of these great things—Medicare for All, reforming the criminal justice system, you name it—if we don't have an Earth for ourselves right now in our time and to leave to future generations."
Turner characterized Sanders' Green New Deal Proposal—which he was introducing at a climate-focused town hall event at the time of the interview—as "a win-win" when it comes to the environment and the needs of workers and organized labor.
"We have to put people back to work to do this," Turner said. "Millions of people all across this country will benefit from us doing good and doing right by Mother Earth because we put them to work."
That conversation on climate and workers was a bridge to questions about the campaign's primary strategy, including how Sanders can win voters in coal mining communities in places like West Virginia and Kentucky. "We have to make sure that we help them to find jobs that will help them—not vilify them like they were in 2016," said Turner, "but to put them to work in these green jobs."
Asked about Sanders being in a large state like California while she, a top-level advisor, was focused on the relatively small state of Maine on the other side of the country, Turner said the juxtaposition was an important one and that the answer was crucial to understanding the campaign they are trying to run.
She said the most challenging thing in the primary is doing the hard work of holding as many events—large and small—as possible in order to listen reach out to people in truly meaningful ways.
"All states are important," Turner said. "Even though the senator won this state by two to one in 2016, he's not taking it for granted saying, 'Maine, you owe me.' His message is, 'I need to earn your vote again just the way I did in 2016.'"
Rejecting the idea that Sanders somehow faces a problem in which he cannot expand his base beyond loyal supporters—a common refrain among political journalists and pundits—Turner said the premise of that misses the reality of what Sanders has already achieved and misjudges his potential going forward.
"Where are people getting this from?" Turner asked, challenging the premise. "I mean, by anecdotal evidence, you have a senator that went on Joe Rogan's show—it might be up to 10 million now, I don't know—but last time I looked at the number it was 9 million. And if people just go in there and look at some of the comments—I know this is anecdotal, it's not scientific—but you got a lot of people that say, 'Wow. I had you wrong.' Because the senator had a chance in long form to talk about his vision, not in sound bites or some debate stage. Sound bites do not play to the senator's strength—substance plays to the senator's strength. And in that time that he was with Joe, Sanders got a chance to—even if people don't agree with him—to express why he believes we should have Medicare for All; why he believes we should cancel out student debt; and all the other things that he stands for. And people said, 'Ok, I understand now. I'm with you.' Or, 'I wasn't gonna vote for you, but now I am.' So for anybody to say that he is at his quote-unquote 'ceiling' and that he can't expand—he's the only one that really can."
In a similar vein to Sanders appearance on Rogan's podcast—a controversial choice for some critics—Sanders also recently posted an online video of his discussion with hip-hop artist Cardi B in which the pair talked about healthcare, student debt, the minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and other key issues. The video, according to Politico, has now been viewed more than 22 million times across social media.
"So scientific polls are one thing, but to see the types of people who are galvanizing across this country to support Senator Bernie Sanders is another thing," said Turner.
The senator, she continued, is about movement building and energizing people that the Democratic Party—including independents, young people, poor people, people of color, and workers—has let down, lost sight of, or stopped believing in.
As the Sanders campaign suggested on Monday, following a large rally in Kentucky the day before:
This election isn't about "red states" or "blue states."— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) August 26, 2019
In every state, there are working people who are desperate for change and an economy that works for more than just the billionaires.
We stand with them and together we are going to win. https://t.co/XqAdKL8yLK
More than anyone currently in the race, Turner explained, Sanders has the potential to inspire broadly and draw huge turnout. "Why?" she said. "Because of his vision and because of his consistency and because of his authenticity."
"There is a difference," she continued, "between candidates running just to become president and having a presidential candidate that says I am running not just for me to become the president of the United States, but to movement build—that's Senator Bernie Sanders. Because he has said this is not about him—this is about us and I'm going to need all of you."
Turner said Sanders is unique among candidates when he tells audiences at rallies that his possible victory will mean very little without a movement behind him. Turner said no other candidate is even coming close to saying that. "That's about expansion, right there," she said. "People got it wrong if they don't understand. It's not just about who has the best ideas, it's about who can excite."
But while Sanders continues to draw crowds across the country in venues large and small, Turner says the campaign believes the size of the event is not as important as the message the campaign is communicating and the kind of listening and storytelling that is taking place as the senator and his team criss-cross the nation.
"Those large rallies—people chanting 'Bernie! Bernie!'—that excites people," she explained, "but can we can get into rooms with just a hundred people and have a conversation about the type of future that they want to win. It's both/and, not either/or."
"Hell, I'll go into a room with five people," added Turner. "Because if we can win five people over, you multiply that."
And this, she said, "is the way we win."