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Bernie Sanders' Hallmark Rally Strategy


Bernie Sanders and the other senators running for president are trapped in the president's impeachment trial. But later today, they will zip out back onto the campaign trail using every precious hour to try to make their final pitch to voters. For Mr. Sanders, that's often at sizable rallies, a hallmark of his campaign. NPR's Don Gonyea takes us to New Hampshire to see how the Vermont senator has been rallying his loyal base.

SIMON: A Bernie Sanders rally has kind of a loose, homemade feel to it. Often, they start with a local band to warm up the crowd, like last weekend on a freezing cold Saturday night inside a middle-school gym in Manchester.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Jake Swamp and The Pine with special guest, the drummer from Phish, Jon Fishman.

JAKE SWAMP AND THE PINE: (Singing) We should left long ago and just gotten out of town.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: And so a night at a Bernie Sanders rally begins. There are often celebrity activists on hand. In Manchester with a basketball hoop and a Bernie sign as a backdrop, it's actor John Cusack.

JOHN CUSACK: We have never ever in our lifetimes had a truer champion of social, economic and climate justice this close to the White House.


GONYEA: Union leaders, campaign volunteers and local candidates take turns at the mike - finally, Sanders himself.


JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Power to the people - power to the people...


GONYEA: Outside, it's been snowing hard since people started arriving hours earlier.

SANDERS: I am glad to see a little bit of snow does not intimidate those of us from Northern New England, right?


GONYEA: Sanders' speech is heavy on issues - Medicare For All, climate change, banning assault weapons, the need for a wealth tax, raising the national minimum wage.

SANDERS: You know, many of my opponents are saying, oh, Bernie. It's too much. We can't pay teachers a living wage. We can't make public colleges and universities' tuition should free. Really? That's exactly what we intend to do.

GONYEA: As for President Trump, the language is blunt.

SANDERS: That we can't have a president who is a racist and a sexist and a homophobe and a xenophobe and a religious bigot.

GONYEA: And a boast about the small-dollar donations to fuel his campaign.

SANDERS: No campaign in the history of the United States of America has received more contributions from more people at this point in a campaign than we have. That's a political revolution.


SANDERS: Thank you all very much.


THE DOOBIE BROTHERS: (Singing) Takin' it to the streets.

GONYEA: Afterward, Sanders doesn't hang around long, taking selfies like most other candidates do. He works the rope line for a bit then exits out a back door. But the audience is clearly energized by this 78-year-old candidate.

You seen Bernie before?

ALICE SYMMES: Never - this is my first time. And I got my mom to come with me (laughter).

GONYEA: This is Alice Symmes, a behavior analyst who works with special needs children and their families.

You're here wearing a button that says Bernie beats Trump.

SYMMES: Yes, I am.

GONYEA: A lot of people say Bernie can't beat Trump. Some Democrats say that.

SYMMES: I say they're wrong. And I have confidence that the truth and integrity and character will win.

JAKE SWAMP AND THE PINE: Dick Monks is a retired union carpenter who backed Sanders four years ago then voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election. Now he's with Sanders again. He looks around at a packed house on a night with lousy weather.

DICK MONKS: But this is where people want to be. I think Sanders can win because people really want him.

GONYEA: And he worries if someone like Joe Biden wins the nomination then all the enthusiasm Democrats have in 2020 could fade. There's something else he likes about this Sanders crowd.

MONKS: They're young people. The way he mobilized the youth in '16 - he's doing it again. That's encouraging to me.

GONYEA: There was yet another Bernie Sanders event a day later in Conway at a brewpub a couple hours to the North - again, a full house. Volunteer Frank Thompson is one of those young Sanders supporters.

FRANK THOMPSON: So over winter break, I've been campaigning for Bernie, canvassing, putting up signs. Right now, you know, I'm just kind of...

GONYEA: When I asked him to size up the audience at this event, he had the opposite take as Dick Monks who appreciated all the young people a day earlier in Manchester.

THOMPSON: Every time I come out here, I am super surprised at how many, you know, older folk are here. I think that's really important for them to turn out.

GONYEA: Back at the Manchester rally, in that Saturday night snow, I talked to some Sanders supporters outside. Zachary Merriam as a 23-year-old machinist and labor organizer.

ZACHARY MERRIAM: He's strongly supports the working class. I don't see any other candidate that stacks up with him.

GONYEA: If he's not the nominee, what do you do then?

MERRIAM: I'm not going to vote.

GONYEA: You won't vote.

MERRIAM: No, I won't. I will not.

GONYEA: There's no other option.


GONYEA: That's a sentiment you heard more often from Sanders supporters in 2016. This time, you hear fewer claims that the nominating process is rigged against Sanders and more who sound like Alice Symmes.

SYMMES: If I choose not to vote then I feel like that abstaining helps Trump. And there's nothing about me that wants to help Trump.

GONYEA: After the rally, the cleanup crew stacks the folding chairs. Music still pipes through the sound system. And with Senator Sanders tied up with the impeachment trial in these days before Iowa and New Hampshire, he'll need the people who show up at events like these to reach out to potential backers and to show that the grassroots can turn out the vote, even if the candidate is around a lot less.


TRACY CHAPMAN: (Singing) Talkin' 'bout a revolution.

GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News, Manchester. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.