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Rallying for Bernie Sanders, Seminar-Style

Posted on Jan 25, 2016

By Bill Boyarsky

  Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at a campaign event Saturday in Maquoketa, Iowa. (Jae C. Hong / AP)

Sometimes Bernie Sanders’ campaign feels more like a policy seminar than a fevered race for the presidency, but that unusual quality may be one of the candidate’s surprising strengths.

Anger is the emotion the mainstream media affixes to the Vermont senator and his followers, and that rage is supposedly the main force driving his supporters this year. Anger also, the political journalists say, is what lies behind Donald Trump’s loudmouth campaign for the Republican presidential nomination—not the billionaire’s own anger, which is an act, but the fury of his followers.

It makes for a neat, simplistic story, but not the one I encountered when I went to a rally of Sanders volunteers in the Laemmle Theatre in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Saturday afternoon. Rather, the crowd, which filled the movie house, listened quietly, appearing thoughtful and interested as speakers told them in considerable detail about topics including health insurance, fracking, campaign finance reform and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

For the most part, they were middle-aged or older and dressed casually. Most of them did not look as though they had just shopped at one of the luxury shops a couple of miles north on Rodeo Drive.

The session began with an effort to round up volunteers to make phone calls to prospective voters, particularly in Iowa, where Sanders trails Hillary Clinton by 7 points in RealClearPolitics’ average of polls, and in New Hampshire, where Sanders is ahead by 13. The Iowa caucuses will be held Feb. 1 and the New Hampshire primary will be on Feb. 9. To have a real chance at securing his party’s nomination, Sanders needs to do well in both contests so that the media and the public will begin to see him as the front-runner.

At the meeting in Beverly Hills—one of 2,000 such gatherings for Sanders around the country—volunteers were learning the computerized system that the campaign uses to make phone calls to prospective supporters, who are identified by sophisticated profiling. The prospectives are asked if they like Sanders or lean toward him, and the names of those who reply positively are sent to field offices in Iowa and New Hampshire, where volunteers—some coming from distant states—call on them again in person or by phone.

No phone calls were made from the movie theater Saturday. The purpose of the gathering was instead to steam up the audience and to send people to phone banks near their homes. The phone bank addresses are sorted by ZIP code and easily available on smartphones.

A showing of the spectacular Sanders ad with Simon and Garfunkel singing “America,” featuring a heartwarming montage of Iowans, roused the attendees. Then Sanders, wearing a sharp V-neck sweater with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, gave a short speech from somewhere in Iowa.

He hit his usual themes, attacking the campaign contribution system and noting that he has received “2½ million individual contributions, more than any other campaign ... [with] $27 the average contribution.”

The present system “is undermining democracy,” he added.

The most interesting part came next: a deep examination of public policy issues. Lauren Steiner, one of the coordinators of the local Sanders campaign, introduced Jack Eidt of SoCal 350 Climate Action Coalition and Dr. Nancy Greep of Physicians for a National Health Program.

Eidt talked of the dangers of transporting oil by truck and by rail through populated areas as well as the risks of depending on fossil fuel. This had a special resonance with the audience, gripped by the recent news of a huge methane gas leak in the Porter Ranch subdivision, several miles to the north in the San Fernando Valley.

Greep walked the audience through the health plan, explaining the meaning of “single payer”—the confusing term used to describe a “Medicare for all” system. Her purpose was to give volunteers ammunition to defend Sanders when they call prospective voters who have bought into Clinton’s distortion of what Sanders is advocating.

Other speakers also covered such topics as the need to reform campaign financing and the evils of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Greep and Eidt are part of the so-called revolution in policy and government that Sanders promises. In the long term, their goal is to push the Sanders program if he wins and to elect state and congressional legislators who support his ideas. In the short term, their goal is to recruit members of existing groups—like Greep’s and Eidt’s organizations—to volunteer for the Sanders campaign.

It’s an intellectual approach to politics in an era when campaigns are driven by hot rhetoric and sensational charges—both beloved by a media industry more concerned with cheap Internet hits than with the intelligent gathering and explaining of the news.

It’s also an appeal to those seeking serious answers to the issues of unequal income, inadequate health care, environmental exploitation and the many other ills that are making Americans angry. This approach addresses the causes of that voter anger rather than just screaming, Trump-style, and it gives substance to the Sanders ground operations in Iowa and New Hampshire.

We’ll see how it works in those two states. Sanders will need plenty of help from voters considerably younger than those in the movie theater audience, and he’ll need these young voters to turn up to vote.

If he runs strongly in Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s on to South Carolina, where the Democratic primary will be held Feb. 27. One poll has him trailing Clinton by 22 points, and another (the Fox News poll) says he is behind by 44 points.

“If we win in South Carolina,” Sanders said in his live-streamed speech Saturday, “it’s a path to victory.”


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