Pundits wrote the socialist senator off after Super Tuesday, but he came roaring back with a stunning upset in Michigan. Now his formidable ground campaign is kicking into high gear in five battleground states – and they’re playing to win
By the beginning of March, America’s elites had already written Bernie Sanders off. “What makes Bernie Sanders think he can win Michigan?” After Hillary Clinton swept the southern states on Super Tuesday, they rushed to crown her as the inevitable Democratic nominee.
But on Tuesday, the establishment had their world turned upside down: Sanders won Michigan in what may go down as the greatest upset in a US presidential primaries.
Pollster Nate Silver gave Hillary a greater than 99% chance of winning. In the final 48 hours, Bernie and his multitude of supporters achieved the impossible: they closed a 21-point gap in the polls. The Bernie campaign is working toward a political revolution, and they’re playing to win.
Over the last few weeks, I worked my way inside the belly of the Bernie campaign. I saw the virtual chatrooms where thousands of super-volunteers are coordinating, and mapped their digital infrastructure, fast growing into something more powerful even than the Obama campaign.
I travelled through five battleground states and spoke with hundreds of his supporters, as well as analysts and insiders. What I found was the story of a political start-up growing exponentially in a cauldron of American discontent.
We’re in Lansing, Michigan, in the so-called rust belt. The sun is setting into snowdrifts, and the land is stark and beautiful. In the bars, the drinkers talk of Donald Trump. In the stadium, 10,000 people are roaring for Bernie.
A woman named Claire Sandberg steps up to the podium and asks, “Who here is ready to win Michigan for Bernie Sanders? March 8 is just six days away. We need every person in this room to commit to volunteering between now and then. A one-on-one conversation between a volunteer and a voter is the single most effective way to convince someone to support Bernie.”
Sandberg runs the campaign’s innovative distributed organising team. For months, she and Zack Exley were only two staffers covering 48 states. They went where Bernie didn’t, connecting with self-organizing groups, combining online and in-person organizing to network thousands of volunteers. Winning in Michigan and around the country would have been impossible without this groundwork.
Lansing is their latest experiment: the first time they’ve used a Bernie rally to directly drive turnout. Almost 3,000 people already signed up to volunteer on the way in, but Claire wants more.
The 74-year-old senator steps to the mic, and the crowd goes wild. Sanders talks about the state of the nation: a rigged economy, a system held in place by corrupt politics where Wall Street banks and billionaires buy elections.
“We did something very radical,” he smiles. “We asked the American people for help. In 10 months, we received over four million individual contributions. More contributions than any candidate in the history of our country.”
The crowd cheers, and Sanders turns to trade.
“In the 1960s, the wealthiest city in the US was …” A voice – “DETROIT!” Bernie nods: “General Motors was the largest private employer in America. Today Detroit is the poorest big city in the United States, with a poverty rate of almost 40%.”
“Last week I did a town meeting in Flint. I cannot recall ever hearing such an outrage. Some of you are parents. Think about what it would mean if you had a nine-year-old daughter who two years ago was a vivacious young girl, good in school, outgoing, and over two years, as a result of lead poisoning, you saw her deteriorate? Dereliction of duty from the governor is so great – he should resign.”
The crowd surge to their feet, tears streaming, faces filled with emotion.
Sanders goes on to talk about rebuilding America’s fabric, infrastructure, clean energy, new industries. He talks about affordable healthcare, ending the plague of student debt that haunts America’s youth.
The political and media class criticise Bernie for only having one idea, one speech. That night however, he spoke directly to the turmoil in the hearts and lives of the people in Lansing: the collapse of the industrial base; the obscene corruption of Flint; the theft of the American dream.
Six days later, he won Michigan.
The Lansing rally was the tip of the iceberg. Below the waterline, 16 “barnstorm” events brought hundreds of people at a time together in bars, churches and community centers around Michigan. They got others involved in phone-banks and neighbourhood canvassing, guided by local field organisers and supported by volunteer-run helpdesks.
Progressive movements which endorsed Bernie – MoveOn, Working Families Party, unions, Democracy for America – channelled in donations and field teams. Meanwhile, thousands of volunteers around the country were sending hundreds of thousands of personalised text messages and making millions of phone calls to identify Bernie voters and persuade those on the fence.
The weekend before the 2012 election, the Obama campaign juggernaut announced its paid staff of 4,000 had delivered over 125 million phone calls and door-knocks during the campaign. Bernie’s volunteer-powered movement has thus far made 30 million phone calls in a fraction of the time.
Even with those numbers, most Americans still don’t really know who Bernie Sanders is. For his staff, it’s a race against time.
Sanders has broken the rule that young people don’t vote. Four times as many under-30s turned out in Michigan against predictions. Meanwhile his authenticity, economic populism and anti-establishment message are recruiting independent, rural and working-class supporters.
His greatest weakness to date has been among African Americans, who Clinton won overwhelmingly across the deep south. Black votes are critical to Democratic victory in both the primary and the general election. But in Michigan, Sanders closed this gap, winning over a third of black votes.
Van Jones, an African American movement leader who worked for Obama, told me: “When you get out of the south – where Democrats can’t win anyway – and into the swing states and blue states, you’ll see African Americans voting a lot more like Michigan. There is no Representative Clyburn to sew up the black vote for the Clintons in the north.”
His advice to Sanders: “African Americans lost about half of our wealth through the home foreclosures. Bernie should be talking about how your grandmother lost her house, how your sons and daughters lost their homes – all because of these banks the Clintons deregulated.”
While stopping short at endorsing him, Jones is entranced by the process.
“Bernie’s movement is redefining what it means to be a Democrat. Hillary may be leading when it comes to delegates, but he’s leading when it comes to principles and policies. If you had told anybody that a year ago, they would have said you were crazy.”
Wynwood, Miami, is boiling hot and humid: a buzzing 21st century neighbourhood of converted warehouses, dizzyingly diverse. The walls are covered with murals and street art. I spot a new tag on the sidewalk: “POLITICAL REVOLUTION UP AHEAD.”
The Bernie campaign had no Florida field staff, so Zack Exley stepped up. He’s one of the White Hats: a will-o-the-wisp organizer who previously worked with MoveOn.org, the Howard Dean campaign and other efforts. Now he’s growing a Floridian super-volunteer network to close the 30-point gap.
More than 350 people show up to the campaign warehouse launch party: a melting pot of black, Latino, Asian, Jewish, retirees, low-wage workers and hipsters. Most heard about it through word-of-mouth texts or calls.
JR and Nadia are an African American couple in their 20s – they’re smart, and passionately committed. JR says: “People can do their research at the speed of light. Watch the old videos and see the consistency of Bernie Sanders: he’s not going to sell out as soon as he becomes president. That’s why everyone’s so energised – it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“The internet is leading his campaign,” adds Nadia. “We weren’t half so knowledgeable seven months ago.”
I ask them how the Sanders movement connects to Black Lives Matter. They respond immediately: “Justice. Equality and fairness. Ending systemic racism and mass incarceration. Income inequality, environmental justice. It’s all linked.”
After African American voters carried Clinton to a landslide in South Carolina, Nadia and JR discovered internet penetration is little over 50% in much of the south, with black voters least connected. They think it will be different in Missouri, Florida and New York.
At a Martin Luther King march in January they spoke to thousands, handing out homemade flyers. “Political revolution means bringing it back to basics,” says Nadia. For JR, “It’s giving people the power back. Increasing the enlightenment of your constituency, so they can make sound judgment calls on who they’re voting for.”
I tell them about the Colorado caucuses earlier that week.
Supporters of each candidate champion their cause, then everyone chooses sides. At East high school in Denver, a well-dressed middle-aged man stood up to shout: “We are here to support Hillary Clinton, because incremental change is the only alternative to bloody revolution!”
A young woman speaks for Sanders: “Bernie, strong promoter of free college tuition and more money for education to keep people out of prison. Campaign reform, because it has become prohibitive to run for office. An increase of the minimum wage to a living wage which helps the economy, and gives people hope that they can be productive in our society.”
Next, an older woman made a better case for Clinton: “There’s never in my life been a candidate better prepared to be president than Hillary Clinton. She has experience at every level of government. Every attack that has ever been thrown against her is already out there – she knows how to deal with it. But if Bernie wins, I will be out there working as hard as I can to get him elected.” Claps and cheers.
A young bearded man stepped forward: “I will agree that Hillary Clinton is the best candidate for our current political system. But I want a change in our system. I’m sick of the status quo. The Clintons are the ones who finished deregulating the banks, which directly led to the financial crisis in 2008. My family suffered through that, your families suffered through that.”
On Super Tuesday, Sanders won Colorado with 59%, Minnesota with 62% and Vermont with 86%. The conservative state of Oklahoma voted Republican in the presidential elections since 1968, and Bernie won it by over 10%.
The day after Super Tuesday, the media parroted a Clinton memo about the “mathematical impossibility” of a Sanders win. Bernie strategist Tad Devine tells me: “We targeted five states, won four and came very close in Massachussetts – where Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama by a double-digit margin. We did not target 11 states.”
In fact, Team Bernie say they have chosen the industrial midwest as their theater. Robert Becker, an elusive field operative who ran Iowa for Bernie and was imprisoned in Egypt after the Tahrir Square revolution, is their local general; Michigan is his first victory.
“I saw it in 1980 when I worked for Carter,” Devine says. “Senator Kennedy had some very big wins in states like New York and California – states where, by the way, I think we can compete and win later in the calendar. The Carter campaign targeted states like Ohio, and won important showdowns there.”
One veteran Clinton insider I talked to despaired at “the arrogance of her saying this thing needs to end when only 30% of the voters have voted. It’s just another sign of the fatigue everyone has with out-of-touch imperial politics. I don’t think people want to vote for Hillary. She’s doing very well with low-information voters.”
Last weekend Bernie also won Kansas with 68%, Nebraska with 57%, Maine with 64%. Now the battle shifts to Missouri, Illinois and Ohio.
Not an Obama moment
Becky Bond works for Credo, a mobile phone company which mobilises users to campaign for progressive causes. Last year she took a leave of absence to join Zack Exley and Claire Sandberg in building Sanders’ infrastructure. She played a critical role in developing their network of young leaders, and in their distributed phone-banking and texting operations.
“This is not the Obama campaign. It’s not dependent on a single charismatic politician,” Becky told me.
Less than a month before the Iowa primary, Bernie Sanders was at the Veterans’ Coliseum in Cedar Rapids. He agreed pointedly with Hillary Clinton about the vital importance of electability, but asked: “Who is the stronger candidate?” The crowd roared back: “Bernie!”
Sanders bowed: “Not me. Us.”
In the days and weeks that followed, #NotMeUs spread like wildfire through social media. The message was carried from friend to friend through Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Snapchat.
A former congressman who worked closely with Obama confirms this difference: “The Obama moment was about an individual of incredible talent, who people used as a Rorschach test for whatever they believed was wrong about the country. It might be better if Bernie doesn’t win,” he continues. “Movements change things more than presidents.”
Van Jones’s take is similar: “Because of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton is now having to embrace black women, denounce mass incarceration and pretend that she’s a champion of fair trade.”
RoseAnn DeMore of National Nurses United, who are mobilizing for Sanders, is part of that movement: “We had an uprising in Wisconsin, where the governor was going after the unions. We had Occupy Wall Street, which took the temperature of the country and showed enormous discontent. It had incredible social acceptance for a time. People got the fact that they were part of the 99%.”
“Occupy got shut down, but it simmered. And now here comes Bernie Sanders, the right man with the right message. This is Bernie’s moment, but it’s not just Bernie’s movement. He’s a moment in the movement, and he knows that,” says DeMoro.
Winnie Wong and Charles Lenchner would agree. They are Occupy activists who set up People for Bernie in early 2015, following unsuccessful efforts to draft progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren for president. They came up with the #FeelTheBern rallying-call. Now their Facebook network has far greater engagement than the official campaign’s page, growing 80% in the last week.
“In 2008 the articles about Obama’s victory focussed on how they would go into a state and open an office and train people, whose job was then to train others,” Charles says. “In every single state, Bernie’s people were already there and ready before a single staffer showed up. They’re willing to more or less follow the directives of staff, but they also have a tremendous amount of autonomy. And the way they got there was by using social networking.”
He continues, “A lot of the people who got attracted to the campaign had experience with movements like Occupy or #FightFor15. All these movements have been fuelled by digital tactics. And now that people know what the routine is, they’re like, oh, I’m going to start a page for my neighbourhood, city or constituency. The Sanders team didn’t build it – the Sanders team can’t dismantle it.”
Back in Florida, I talk with Zack Exley and Masha Mendieta. Masha, 27, is an artist-director with an international relations degree. She dived in as a volunteer, then became an intern, organising volunteer coders to build social media amplification tools. Now she works on the Latino outreach team.
Masha compares the experience to falling in love with her fiance. She was at a watch party in a New York bar the night they won New Hampshire. Bernie announced that instead of holding a fundraiser on Wall Street, he was holding one on television. He asked everyone to go to BernieSanders.com, and in the next 30 hours, the campaign raised almost $8m.
“I stood up on the bar in this packed room, and started giving this off-the-cuff speech about the revolution,” says Masha. “This being the moment you stand up, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. People just went wild. It was one of those out-of-body experiences where you just felt, this is it. This is actually happening. These experiences are happening across the country. Now it’s not just my heart that believes it – my brain believes it too.”
Two young Latino volunteers, Erika and Zenia, compere the Miami launch party. You can see them taking and sharing power. Then they hand Tim Canova the mic. He’s a burly economics professor who locals call “The Hurdler”; he leaps garbage bins on his morning run. Now he’s running for Congress, and his target is the DNC chair.
“In 2011, Bernie Sanders appointed me to his advisory committee to reform the Federal Reserve,” he cries. “I never thought I was going to run for political office. Then last year, I got involved in the anti-TPP campaign, trying to lobby my local Congresswoman, and got no response. If you have a $5,000 cheque from a PAC, you get a response from Debbie Wasserman Schulz…!”
“A whole bunch of us thought, somebody’s gotta challenge her in a primary – I didn’t think it was going to be me. But Bernie needs a Bernie Congress. He needs a progressive congress that’s going to vote a New Deal. We’re going to replace Debbie Wasserman Schulz! This is going to be one of those wave elections…”
Before I leave, Zack tells me Corbin and Saikat Chakrabarti, who was one of the first employees at Silicon Valley startup Stripe, are on their way to Miami to figure out how to replicate this volunteer-powered office model nationwide.
The Bernie Sanders movement is a democratic jigsaw of true believers, connecting up and growing by the day. What happens next depends on the American people.
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