My first sighting of Bernie Sanders was in Safeco Field, Seattle. From the back of the stands I could make out the crown of silver hair, hunched shoulders and crumpled face. He looked a tired man. He stood bernt-out, but the 20,000 strong audience wanted to #feelthebern.
Then his voice boomed. The crowd chanted back. “We need a political revolution.” “Bernie! Bernie!” “I want to see Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street.” “You tell her Bernie!” He scored his home run with “the billionaire class cannot have it all”, which got the middle and working-class America audience into an endless frenzy.
Washington State was going to caucus the next day. Bernie had held this rally to ensure what he called a “yuge voter turnout – and I say yuge because when we have a yuge voter turnout, we win”. On Saturday morning Washington State voted in favour of Bernie, with 73 per cent choosing the Vermont Senator over Hillary Clinton.
Seattle is known to be a true-blue city (that’s Democrat blue, not Tory). The city led America in bringing in the $15 minimum hourly wage. Washington State’s liberal, left-leaning identity rests on its decriminalisation of cannabis, the progressive treatment of its many homeless and socialist activist Kshama Sawant sitting on the City Council.
Sanders’ message finds fertile soil in Washington State. Sanders pushes for free healthcare as a right rather than a privilege. Next to me in the stands was Adam, a fervent Democrat supporter. He told me how he had managed to save up for an operation on a herniated disc in his back – job-related – but did not want to take time off work to have the operation until he had saved up more.
[SANDERS’] CAMPAIGN PRIDES ITSELF ON HAVING THE MOST INDIVIDUAL CONTRIBUTIONS OF ANY PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN IN HISTORY – OVER SIX MILLION.
The atmosphere often leaned more towards pantomime than debate. “Donald Trump” got the villain’s boo, “free college education” received endless cheering. Sanders himself plays the underdog, the driven hero, to his audience. His campaign prides itself on having the most individual contributions of any presidential campaign in history – over six million. With evident glee, Bernie says his prized statistic: “The average contribution to this campaign has been…” with widespread arms he points to the audience – all together now – “27 bucks!”
Bernie has attacked Hillary Clinton over campaign finance repeatedly, for which she received angrier booing than Trump. Clinton’s campaign-chest is part-funded by Wall Street investment firms. The former Secretary of State gave a speech to Wall Street persons with a $225,000 price-tag. For that price “it must be a fantastic speech, in Shakespearean prose, a speech to uplift the entire world”. Sen. Sanders plays his audience well, comical, passionate and angry all in equal part.
The day’s rhythm sped up through its chants and shouts. Bernie was due at 7pm. At 4pm, at Sanders HQ, the slow beat was motivational and humorous: “We’ve got Bernie’s back, he don’t need no Super PAC!” 6pm, an Americana-styled group filled the stadium, pre-electric guitars, tied-back hair and grating harmonica solos. “It’s what all the hipsters are into nowadays,” Adam tells me. This was Sanders’ take on the drum roll, whipping up excitement for his main event.
Sanders did win in Washington State, Hawaii and Alaska on that Saturday. Yet he still trails far behind Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination. Both candidates require 2,383 delegates to win. Clinton leads with 1,243 pledged delegates, delegates from the popular vote, to Sanders’ 979. Clinton also carries the support of 469 “super delegates”, Democratic Party grandees, to Sanders’ meagre 29. ‘Improbable, not impossible’ is how Bernie’s chances are seen by most onlookers.
Team Hillary paints Sanders as the idealist, the far-left radical. The Vermont Senator, 74, runs under the self-elected label of ‘democratic-socialist’. Many of his supporters feel he has done well to take the venom out of ‘socialist’.
‘IMPROBABLE, NOT IMPOSSIBLE’ IS HOW BERNIE’S CHANCES ARE SEEN BY MOST ONLOOKERS.
“He’s the only candidate I can trust to stand up to people like the Koch brothers,” another supporter tells me. “You can trust Bernie – he’s an honest guy.” This is how the “Bernie” brand sells.
The Koch brothers, who have a combined net worth of $99bn, own as much as the bottom 40 million Americans. This is Sanders’ narrative: the 1% vs the rest.
“Fox News is trying to tell us that socialism is a bad thing, but it’s not true,” an older, shrivelled woman tells me in the stadium.
“YOU CAN TRUST BERNIE – HE’S AN HONEST GUY.”
She was older than Bernie. Despite Sanders being most popular with voters under 30, the audience showed a fair spread of all ages.
By 7pm the stadium brimmed with badge-boasting, poster-waving support. It was announced that one million phone-calls were made by the campaign team in the last four weeks. “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie…”
Sanders finished his speech shy of 9pm, with a well-versed crescendo: “Trump cannot win because the American people believe love trumps hatred.” The last line was spoken a little off-beat, but the crowds did not notice. They had started cheering already.