Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stood in front of 11,000-plus people in downtown Phoenix Saturday night and talked about the political transformation he believes the country so desperately needs.
“I’m the only presidential candidate who will tell you this,” he said to a roaring crowd, “no president, no matter how good [he or she is] can bring about the change we need in this country unless there is a political revolution.”
Sanders has traveled around the country in the last few weeks explaining what he calls his “pretty simple” campaign message: “our great country and our government belong to all of the people.” And the response has been, by all accounts, impressive. The campaign had to move the venue for the Phoenix event three times to accommodate the sheer number of people who RSVP’d. And still, the convention hall designed to fit 12,000 people was packed.
When the doors opened to the public at 5 p.m., a constant stream of placard-holding, Robin Hood hat-wearing Bernie Sanders supporters poured into the room. For the next two hours, with a soundtrack of songs espousing revolutionary themes blaring, the flow continued. As people waited, they occasionally broke into cheers of “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie!”
The contrasts to last weekend’s Donald Trump rally were stark. Aside from being almost three times the size, Sanders’ audience was far more racially diverse and included many more young people. Both spoke about making America great again, but Trump often spoke about the exclusive measures he would take – securing our borders to keep “foreign criminals” out, increasing deportations, bullying our way through the international arena to maintain power – while Sanders’ focus leaned toward the inclusive – pathways to citizenship, universal healthcare, free public education, international diplomacy. (Trump’s play list was also comprised entirely of songs about American exceptionalism and freedom.)
“Full equality is the birth right of America,” Sanders said at one point, prompting a response of cheers so loud it drowned out the microphone. There were moments when the room actually felt like it was vibrating, as people applauded, chanted, and stomped their feet. (Some call it a cliché to talk about a crowd buzzing with palpable energy, but there’s really no other good way to describe the 11,000 people in the massive convention hall last night.)
The content of Sanders’ speech was nothing he hasn’t said before – such is the nature of a political stump speech, after all – but in speaking with audience members, campaign staff, volunteers, New Times heard again and again that the response Sanders is getting is unlike anything they’ve ever seen or experienced in past presidential primary races.
One national campaign staffer (who asked not to be named) told New Times that while the turnout in Phoenix was complementary to that of the event in Madison, Wisconsin last week that brought out 10,000 people, the crowd in here had a “different, better energy.” It’s always “better in red states than in blue states,” he added. “Democrats in red states aren’t used to having attention paid to them, so the intensity of those who show up is amazing.” He also called the turnout “proof of Bernie’s ability to expand the electorate.”
“This is staggering beyond belief,” he said, glancing around the room. “Every time we do this, the crowd just gets bigger and bigger.” When asked how this all compares to Barack Obama’s 2008 political campaign for president – for which he also worked — he said it feels different, deeper almost. “This is about changing the entire political culture in the country [because] citizenship doesn’t end at the ballot box.”
Sanders, still considered to be second in the primary race to front-runner Hilary Clinton, appears to be gaining ground quickly in recent weeks. He had less than 5 percent of Democrats saying they would vote for him in the primary when he entered the race, and now, a few months later, he’s pulling in percentages hovering around 30.
“Bernie seemed like the first guy that wasn’t entirely bullshit. He stands for the same things he stood for in the 1980s, and he believes in what he says because he said it when it was unpopular,” ASU student Tyler Gardiner tells New Times. “He’s someone that I share a lot of my personal views with and who won’t compromise [them].”
Gardiner and his two friends, Melissa Pagnozzi and Jonathan Garza, are all 20-year-old Tempe natives who will vote in a presidential election for the first time next fall. They’re ardent Sanders’ supporters, and already brainstorming ways to help motivate their peers to get out and vote.
“I support Bernie because he can’t be bought. He doesn’t take money from super pacs or big businesses,” Pagnozzi says. “Hilary wouldn’t be a bad president, but she’s not the best option. She’s not going to tackle income inequality or student loans as aggressively as Bernie.”
Garza’s impressed with Sanders’ humility, both personally and on an international scale; “the U.S. needs to accept that we’ve been the biggest hegemon for years and that the balance of power is going to shift.”
“Imagine if we took a fraction of our defense budget and put it toward education,” Pagnozzi says.
“What would be better for our nation: a huge military or public education?” Garza responds.
These three college students say they think Sanders is doing a good job inspiring the youth and other populations who traditionally don't vote, mostly because he talks about issues that matter to people — particularly economic ones.
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“We need people to become involved in the political process in a way they never have before, and we need to have real debates about real issues,” Sanders said to the crowd Saturday night.
“Somebody told me Arizona is a conservative state. Somebody told me the people here have given up on the political process. That’s not what I see here tonight. There’s nothing we can’t accomplish in transforming America!” The crowd, suffice to say, went nuts.