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Meeting the campaigners hoping to make Sanders the next US president

© Sonia Dridi / FRANCE 24 | Bernie Sanders supporters Marta and David at the regional campaign headquarters in Richmond, Virginia

Text by Sonia DRIDI

Latest update : 2016-02-07

Bernie Sanders has delivered one of the biggest surprises of the US presidential race by proving to be a genuine contender for the Democratic nomination. FRANCE 24 met with some of the campaigners helping him take on the Clinton political machine.

"Going door to door, talking to your neighbours, your friends – that’s what’s going to get Sanders elected," says Peter Clerkin, Sanders’s 35-year-old campaign manager for Virginia, as he motivates his troops.

The team of local supporters, numbering a little more than 50, are gathered in a municipal hall in the state capital Richmond to inaugurate their new headquarters. Clerkin’s speech is interrupted by a chorus of Sanders’s campaign slogan, “Feel the Bern!” followed by a burst of applause. The atmosphere is electric.

Sanders has been dubbed the new political idol of Democratic “Millennials” – in the Iowa caucuses he won 84 percent of the votes among the 17-29 age group – as well as a certain section of white middle-class voters.

At the Virginia HQ, however, people of all ages and backgrounds have turned out to offer their support.

Many are completely new to the world of political campaigning. When Clerkin asks people to raise their hands if this is their first experience in politics, arms shoot up from at least half the people in the room.

‘The American dream hasn’t happened for us’

What they all share is their enthusiasm for the self-proclaimed democratic socialist, as well as a sense that the current system is not working.

Sanders has promised to fix the economy, break up banking giants, end collusion between politicians and the world of finance, provide universal health coverage and make affordable the exorbitant costs of university tuition.

They are proposals that resonate with many Americans who are struggling to make ends meet. Americans like Marta Powers, one of the millions of Americans working two jobs in order to get by – in her case, as an accountant in an architecture firm and as a seamstress.

Marta and her husband David are busy writing on a large piece of paper on the wall, asking people to list the reasons they support Sanders.

“There are so many people like us who have been working all our lives and the American dream hasn't happened for us,” she says. “We are getting close to retirement ourselves and things have only gotten much, much worse." They are afraid, says Marta, ”that we won't be able to retire with any dignity".

David, who works in a factory, adds: "We have children and we need to have a future to believe in.”

For Jessica, a 31-year-old self-described Sanders “fan”, the senator’s appeal is that “he is very honest” and “supports the people”.

Jessica must use a cane to walk after recently having surgery on her spinal column, and she says she cannot afford certain drugs because she does not have health insurance. This is her first foray into political activism.

“I used to not be into politics at all because I didn't have any faith in them until Bernie Sanders came along,” she says.

Taking on the Clinton political machine

Words like “sincere” and “passionate” are used often by the activists at the Virginia headquarters to describe Sanders – qualities that contrast favourably with the perception many Democrats have of his rival, Hillary Clinton.

When asked about the former first lady, Randy, Jessica’s boyfriend, has only one word for her: "Liar".

The long-running scandal over Clinton’s emails while secretary of state has weighed down the campaign of a candidate already criticised in some quarters for being too artificial and too close to Wall Street.

Dereck Toro, a web designer in his 40s, does not mince his words when it comes to how he feels about Clinton. “She is corrupted,” he says. “She has been in the establishment for too long, she takes a lot of big money. She is tied to corporations and lobbyists.”

He admits that Clinton may have the edge over his preferred candidate when it comes to foreign policy, but says that Sanders has “good judgment. That’s the most important thing." He offers Sanders’s opposition to the 2003 Iraq invasion as an example.

Confident that Sanders already has the Democratic nomination sewn up, Dereck sees populist billionaire Donald Trump as the most dangerous opposition – a political “outsider” like Sanders, but from the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Winning over minorities

Significant barriers still remain for Sanders, however, not least of which is his standing with minority votes.

Clinton polls well among African Americans, especially in the southern states that will hold their primaries in the coming weeks.

"Sanders doesn't have much of a chance to beat Clinton unless he improves his numbers with non-white voters,” says Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.

According to Evandra Catherine, a 33-year-old African-American member of the Sanders campaign team, it's only a matter of time until he does just that.

“I think that once African Americans know Bernie Sanders’s civil rights legacy and that he has been fighting for us for the past fifty years, they will start to [come round],” she says.

But there are other hurdles to overcome. Not only does Clinton benefit from the support of the Democratic Party elites, Sanders is seen by many as too left-wing to win a general election in a country where “socialism” has long been a dirty word.

His supporters, encouraged by Sanders’s incredible rise in recent weeks, remain optimistic.

Clerkin says he is impressed by the way people have been energised by the campaign. “I’ve not seen anything like it in politics these last 10 years,” he says. “People are more enthusiastic than Obama supporters were in 2008.”

Nevertheless, Clerkin is always on the lookout for new volunteers to help the cause.

“How many people have your heard saying they like Bernie Sanders, but they don’t think he can win? Come on, it's time to convince them!"

Date created : 2016-02-07


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