NASHUA, New Hampshire — Amberlee Jones was lucky to get a seat. The crowd at Nashua Community College was overflowing into the aisles as they waited to hear Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. When he took the stage, the room grew instantly quiet. When he stepped up to the microphone after a brief introduction, the room exploded in cheers.
“I think that he has a lot of integrity. That’s incredibly important to me,” Jones, a 28-year-old sign-language interpreter from Rochester, New York, said afterward. “I don’t think that we can run our country without some sort of moral or ethical guidelines. So that’s why I’m going to vote for him.”
Sanders is trying to start what he calls a “political revolution.” An independent who identifies as socialist, Sanders is running for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, with which he caucuses in Congress. He has refused to take super PAC funds or run negative campaign ads. Instead, he’s taking a message of economic populism directly to voters.
His approach seems to be paying off. Though written off as an outside shot by almost all mainstream political commentators, he is polling just 8 percentage points behind Hillary Clinton among likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire, according to a CNN/WMUR poll released last week.
Sanders is nearly 40 points behind Clinton in Iowa and more than 50 points behind her nationally, according to Real Clear Politics’ averages of recent polls. The Granite State could be key to turning around those national numbers. A win in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, Feb. 9, would build momentum and funding going into the other primaries.
“What we do, what I’ve always done in Vermont and what we’re going to do here, is do exactly what this meeting was about — bring people together, have a serious discussion about serious issues, nothing fancy about it. I think that is the road to success, frankly,” Sanders told reporters after a speech in Henniker, New Hampshire.
He spent last weekend stumping across the state speaking to what is now a common sight: overflow crowds. In addition to Nashua and Henniker, he went to Bow, Rochester, Durham and Laconia on Sunday. In all, his staffers believe, more than 5,000 New Hampshire voters saw him speak at town meetings and house parties by the end of the weekend.
‘Really important to me’
Most of these going to see Sanders are there for his left-wing takes on issues concerning equality and the economy. Jennifer Alford-Teaster, 38, a geospatial research project director in Sutton, attended the meeting in Henniker with her husband. She said social mobility and equal pay for women are among her top priorities.
“I grew up poor, on welfare, food stamps, and I had to put myself through college,” she said. “I now work at Dartmouth and have a very prestigious position, and it’s only because I was able to work and put myself through school. So economic and social mobility issues are really important to me.”
Diane Raymond, 58, a technical editor from Nashua, New Hampshire, is most concerned about offshoring jobs and the impact of climate change. Sanders’ stance on both issues moved her to volunteer during his town meeting at Nashua Community College.
“I really like the things that Bernie talks about. They’re the same issues that I’m concerned with. I like the way he doesn’t take corporate money and he doesn’t mince his words. He says it like it is,” she said.
In his stump speeches, Sanders struck a chord addressing his core issues: income inequality and taking money out of politics. Lines about taking on the “billionaire class” drew standing ovations. “Oh, you’re being nice to them. It’s worse than that,” Sanders quipped when the crowd in Henniker began to boo at his mention of Charles Koch and David Koch, major conservative political donors who have become a favorite target of the left.
Sanders laid out policies that included expanding Medicare, eliminating tuition for much of higher education, raising the minimum wage and introducing public campaign financing. He called for an end to trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he believes lead to unemployment at home and unfair wages abroad.
He revealed his litmus test for future Supreme Court nominees: whether they favor overturning Citizens United, a controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling that removed limits on certain kinds of campaign spending by corporations, labor unions and nonprofits.
Sanders admits his platform is ambitious — and expensive. Political will for big-budget government policies has been especially weak since the Great Recession, which saw the rise of the fiscally conservative tea party movement as the anti-spending wing of the Republican Party. In recent years, debates between Republicans and Democrats have tended to focus on how much to cut government spending rather than whether to expand public services. Sanders wants to change that.
“What I hope you will do, what I beg of you, what I beg of you is, don’t think small. Think big,” he told supporters in Henniker. “Today the United States of America is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. We are not a poor, developing country. The choice should not be whether we cut education by 2 percent or 4 percent. The choice should be how we make sure that every person in this country has the ability to get a college education.”
He was less vocal on foreign policy and national security issues. Those areas fall outside his core interests, and his views on them tend to be less progressive. That has sometimes put him at odds with his supporters on the left — especially over his views on Israel and the use of targeted drone strikes against suspected armed fighters in the Middle East and North Africa. Asked about foreign policy, Sanders cited his votes against the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq as proof he has been right more often than not.
Still, Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire trust Clinton more on terrorism, trade, health care and the economy, according to the CNN/WMUR poll. They also find Clinton more presidential and leaderly.
But more Democratic primary voters say Sanders better represents their values and cares more about people like them. They also trust him more than they do Clinton when it comes to dealing with big banks and corporations, according to the poll.
“He doesn’t seem to play the political game. He just says what he has to say. And he gets right to the meat of the matter,” said Ann Merritt, 38, a dietitian from New London.
That issue of trust comes up often. At campaign events across New Hampshire over the weekend, supporters often described Sanders as plainspoken and trustworthy.
“The senator is really tapping into issues that speak to what is happening in the United States right now in a way that no one else is doing. He’s framing them very directly, very intelligibly and intelligently,” said Ron Abramson, 46, an immigration attorney who hosted a house party for Sanders in Bow. “Those of us who feel like we work hard and we’re playing by the rules but the rules aren’t really helping us get ahead are paying attention.”