It’s 8pm on a Wednesday and in a Brooklyn loft, a Bernie Sanders screen-printing event is in full swing.
“It’s a four-year-old workout shirt,” says Nick Kowalczyk, holding up a once-white cotton T-shirt that now has a lot of yellowing under the arms.
Kowalcyzk, 29, is an actor originally from Atlanta. His friend asks if he plans to wear his cowboy hat with the freshly printed shirt, which now has a red heart with a cutout face in the middle which vaguely resembles an outline of the head of the Vermont senator and leftwing candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Above the heart: “Bernie.” Below it: “For President.”
“Fuck yeah,” says Kowalczyk. “I’m gonna wear a lot of things with this.”
Dozens of people walk around the loft, an apartment with the high tin ceilings and single-pane windows of a converted factory. Most have brought T-shirts to be printed. Freshly inked shirts hang from clotheslines strung across the space, delicately balanced on window ledges and strewn across chairs.
Since declaring his bid for the White House in April, Sanders, a self-stated Democratic socialist, has held some of the biggest rallies of any of the Democratic or Republican candidates. The Vermont senator – an independent in the Senate, but running for the Democratic nomination – hosted a live webcast in July that was watched by around 100,000 people at 3,500 different events nationwide.
The screen-printing evening is taking place in Bushwick, an area known for – or lamented as – being the hippest part of Brooklyn. It’s a neighbourhood where artists, musicians and writers rub up against longer-term, mostly Hispanic residents.
“Bernie Sanders uses socialism in the way it makes sense, which is just good, common, moral, ethical policy,” Kowalczyk says. “And I appreciate the guy’s honesty and his steadfastness to his beliefs. His consistency.”
Beth Basketville, 25, is among those waiting in line at the printing table. She was at the viewing party here three weeks ago – the first time she has attended an event supporting a political candidate.
“He’s the only person running who I’d actually want to be in the White House,” Basketville says. “I like that he’s the candidate that supports women and marginalised individuals. He’s the only one who’s really looking out for those groups.”
A glance at social media, where Sanders has inspired countless hashtags, memes and general fanfare, gives an insight into the sort of cult following he is amassing.
On Instagram, #feelthebern and #Bernie2016 vie for dominance with the #babesforbernie hashtag – which is mostly self-applied by mostly young women who are mostly holding or wearing some sort of Sanders apparel. On Facebook 1.8m people like Sanders’ page, 0.6m more than the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, and 1.6m more than Republican Jeb Bush.
Of all those running for president, Sanders has the highest level engagement on his individual Facebook posts, according to social media monitor CrowdTangle. He has the largest number of people liking his messages, sharing his thoughts, and commenting on his plans.
Bernie Sanders-branded clothing is big online as well – it is not restricted to Bushwick lofts. The online clothing store LookHuman has been capitalising on Sanders’ popularity for months. There’s a T-shirt with the message “Bernie is Bae” (a similar design was also available at the Bushwick party). There’s a T-shirt with “Talk Bernie to me” written on it. There’s even one with cartoon image of the 73-year-old legislator riding a unicorn, along with the message: “Bernie Sanders is magical.”
Politicians do not often inspire memes, or clothing lines, or indeed young people in general. Young people are not even supposed to be interested in politics right now. The number of 18- to 29-year-olds voting declined from 2008 to 2012. The 2014 midterms saw the lowest youth turnout ever: just 19.9%.
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg is director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement , an organisation that encourages young people to get involved in politics. Three-quarters of young people believe voting is not an effective way to change society, she says.
“Part of it is really sort of the age that they grew up in. If you think about the millennials, that age group, they turned 18 as President George W Bush took office. That’s the world they grew up in: their country is at war, it seemed to have lost purpose.
“And then as they were graduating from college the recession hit. So the social contrast that people generally have – that you invest in your education and you get paid off – was a myth for them.”
This shared upbringing has meant many young voters are “unable to trust” politicians, according to Kawashima-Ginsberg. That is where Sanders, with his long-standing record of supporting women’s rights and economic equality, comes in.
“One thing is his genuineness. He’s been consistent warrior against economic inequality since the 60s, and he hasn’t changed a bit,” Kawashima-Ginsberg says.
An Economist/YouGov poll in July found strong support for Sanders among 18- to 29-year-olds. In a direct vote between Clinton and Sanders, 45% said they would vote for the former secretary of state, 44% for Sanders. In state-by-state polling Sanders’s best numbers come from the same age group.
At the Bushwick party several people contrasted Sanders’s solidity with the record of Clinton: specifically her previous opposition, when running for senator, to same-sex marriage. But there is also the appeal of Sanders’s message.
“Millennials, we in general identify ourselves as the generation of debt,” says Moumita Ahmed, part of a team which runs People for Bernie, an activist group independent from Sanders’ campaign. “That’s our identity. Bernie Sanders that’s one of his biggest issues: his biggest platform is debt, inequality.”
Ahmed, 24, helps with the organisation’s Millennials for Bernie team, which aims to attract young voters. The group has run a selfie campaign where they asked supporters to send selfies, along with messages saying why they planned to vote for Sanders.
“We try to promote all these events that are cool and hip,” she says. “It’s really important that campaign comes up with stuff that is interesting.”
Young supporters are blessed with skills that they want to use to help Sanders’s campaign, Ahmed says. Volunteers have created websites and built apps: “Things that you would never expect from a traditional campaign. It’s mind-blowing to see.”
But Sanders’s huge rallies have shown that his support is not just online. More than 19,000 people attended a rally in Portland on 9 August. Some 15,000 were at a similar event in Los Angeles the next night.
His ability to translate online popularity to real-life support is a demonstration of how millennials do not have the same separation between their online and real-world lives as older generations, Kawashima-Ginsberg says.
“If you transfer that right over to primaries they could really surprise us by just showing up in a huge number to support Bernie Sanders,” Kawashima-Ginsberg says.
A CNN/WMUR poll in New Hampshire at the beginning of August had Sanders just six points behind Clinton: 42% to 36%. The next highest was Joe Biden – who has not said whether he will enter the race – with a meagre 5%.
Nationally, a 19 August poll by CNN/ORC showed that Sanders had closed the gap on Clinton over the previous month, although he still trailed the frontrunner 29% to her 47%. The HuffPost Pollster , which compiles data from 22 different polling companies, shows Clinton with an average of 50% of the vote compared to Sanders, in second place, with 20%.
“Barring a Clinton withdrawal or some serious legal trouble like an indictment, his chances of becoming the Democratic nominee are extraordinarily slim.”
Hudak says the polling showing a Sanders surge is misleading, with his most impressive numbers coming from New Hampshire, a neighbour to Vermont. In reality, Hudak says, Clinton “is the most heavily favourite non-incumbent Democratic candidate for the presidency in history”.
Hudak says Sanders could still have an influence on the campaign, by forcing Clinton to talk about issues she would rather not discuss, and could even serve in a Clinton administration, but sees significant barriers to him being victorious.
For one thing Sanders’s anti-establishment positioning inevitably means he lacks the support of the establishment.
“Sanders hasn’t gotten the support of a single member of Congress,” Hudak says. “I think that is a serious challenge for him.”
And while the Vermont senator is popular with young people, Hudak says he is “not connecting well” with older people and minorities.
Jon Fuhrer, one of the hosts of the Bushwick printing party, says supporters are aware of this. One of his duties for the night has been encouraging newcomers to sign up to campaign for Sanders. (Some of his time has also been spent serving cans of Rolling Rock – $5 for two.)
“We’re recruiting new volunteers who don’t live in the same bubble that we live in,” Fuhrer says.
He has organised teams of volunteers to attend block parties in a bid to spread their message to lower income, minority families and says they have succeeded in signing up dozens of volunteers and many first-time voters.
As the evening draws towards a close, scores of T-shirts have been branded with Sanders’s name and face, Fuhrer has added dozens of names to his volunteering list, and the print on Kowalcyzk’s fetid, four-year-old workout T-shirt is fully dry.
Despite souring T-shirts, there is a refreshing air to the gathering, one of optimism and energy. And with more than five months until the first primary, most supporters here are adamant that Sanders can be successful.
“He absolutely can win,” says Sean Lavelle, who has brought a battered American flag bandana and two T-shirts to the party.
“It depends on whether or not those who aren’t familiar with Bernie become familiar with Bernie.
“And also it depends on those who think that he can’t win. If we can get those people to vote for who they genuinely like, rather than who they think is most probable, then I honestly think that public opinion would go towards Bernie.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015