Almost everywhere that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont campaigns in his quest for the Democratic nomination for president, crowds overflow to standing room and in some cases out the doors. Ten thousand people packed the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin, recently. On a two-day tour of New Hampshire, 1,500 people came out to hear him in high school gyms and auditoriums, and at a barbecue and house party. Some polls have him tied or within a few points of frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the state, which hosts the nation’s first primary. Within the exalted halls of mainstream punditry, there’s been surprise, begrudging admiration and fears of spoliation.
New Hampshire isn’t racially diverse — it’s 94 percent white — but Sanders’ audiences otherwise encompass a broad cross-section of society: teachers, cops, food-service and healthcare workers, small business owners. Watching them listen intently, the burning question arises: Can Bernie be the guy who brings the white working class, especially men, into the fold of the progressive left?
Despite — or because of — persistently stagnant income and lack of social mobility, voters once called “Reagan Democrats” continue to feel betrayed by a Democratic Party they consider elitist and out of touch with the struggles of ordinary Americans. In casting their votes for Republicans, they cite cultural and emotional connection over tangible benefits like Obamacare, which has reduced the ranks of the uninsured by more than 10 million.
Sanders upends those expectations the moment he steps up to a microphone. Barack Obama was a rock star on the campaign trail, handsomely cool and elegant. Bernie couldn’t be more different. He’s older. His clothes are ordinary. He doesn’t offer much charm or soaring inspirational rhetoric. Instead, he launches right away against what he calls “the idolatry of money” and how the United States has “become an oligarchy.” His indictment is searing. At the Governor’s Inn in Rochester two weeks ago, he asked, “Did a terrible tornado rip through America and destroy our infrastructure? No. The greed of the billionaire class has got to end or they are going to destroy this country.” And the crowd rose to its feet with a standing ovation, as they did many times through his hour-long stump speech.
At New England College in Henniker the afternoon before, he called economic inequality “the great moral issue of our time. It’s not an issue that people feel comfortable with. But there is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns as much as the bottom 90 percent.” His menu of solutions is ambitious: break up the large banks, free tuition at state universities, raise the minimum wage, expand Social Security and the Affordable Care Act, guarantee paid maternity, parental leave and vacations, and fund it all by increasing taxes on the wealthy and reducing the military budget.
Scott Philbrick, a 52-year-old police officer retired on disability, voted for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the last election but said, “I want to hear” Sanders “because he’s not going to lie or candy coat. He’s going to say what’s on his mind, no matter what.” Mr. Philbrick waited patiently with a bound 1937 copy of the U.S. Constitution in which he collects candidate autographs. During the question-and-answer session after the speech, he asked a question on a lot of people’s minds: “How will you get your platform passed? There’s complete dysfunction in Congress.”
The senator warmed to his answer, one he annunciates in one form or another at every stop. Evoking populist imagery by addressing his audience as “brothers and sisters,” he asked them to “reach out to working-class and middle-class Republicans who continue to vote against their own best interests,” and change their minds. “They should not be voting for people who are cutting the legs out from under their kids,” he said, in reference to Republican cuts in Pell Grants. And then he singled out David and Charles Koch, Sheldon Adelson and the Walton family that owns Wal-Mart — the country’s largest employer — for spending more on their causes than the entire Democratic or Republican parties have on theirs. He views that as antithetical to democratic values and ordinary citizens.
Call this a new variation on “Can I have a beer with him?”, the Joe Six-Pack factor that famously helped elect George W. Bush. Voters may or may not want to have a beer with Bernie — he doesn’t tell personal or emotional anecdotes very often — but they can be sure he’s not talking down to them. That may be the key to his method, his rise in the polls, the large crowds coming out to hear him. Few felt that they could have a beer with John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee derided as a windsurfer, or Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential candidate considered wooden, or now, perhaps, Hillary Clinton, who has suffered from low “likeability” polls.
Bernie Sanders, an average-looking old man compared to any of them, is happy to make comparisons that could be punch lines at a Republican rally. At the Oyster River High School in Durham, he said, “Scandinavian countries have accomplished extraordinary things. Quality healthcare as a right. Excellent childcare systems. The U.S. is very different from small countries like Denmark or Finland. But that’s what socialism is about, and I don’t apologize for that. In Denmark, it’s very hard to be very rich and very hard to be very poor. Sounds good to me.”
So, can it work with white Middle America? Can he transcend preconceived notions about how “socialism” and “Europe” are bad? Kalika Bower, a 27-year-old waitress nursing her infant after an event, said, “I’m really inspired by Bernie’s goals: raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. I have $20,000 in student loans. I would like to see him win. Though I’m skeptical as to how far he’ll get, he exceeded my expectations.”
More than any other Democratic presidential candidate in recent memory, Bernie looks most like the people he claims to represent. For working-class Republicans, it may be the first time that they’re hearing this message from someone who could be themselves. Some Democrats have given up the white working-class vote as lost. They prefer to focus on demographic groups that have been more reliably loyal in recent elections, such as women, African-Americans and Hispanics, and urban as opposed to rural constituencies. Bernie is working hard to win them back … and at least some of them are getting it.