On a recent Friday afternoon in April, a large crowd gathered in a park on the shore of Lake Mendota, in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, for a Bernie Sanders rally. Spring hadn’t yet fully settled on the Midwest—it was overcast, with a cold wind blowing—but hundreds of people arrived early. Amid clusters of friends, parents with toddlers, single young men with brown beards, old women in knit caps, union members, students, and retirees, one group huddled for a photograph, yelling “Bern!” instead of “Cheese!” A man named Marc Daniels, who had driven up from Springfield, Illinois, stalked the edge of the crowd, holding a large sign that read “Mazel Tov! Medicare-For-All.” Onstage, a middle-aged trio—guitar, drums, and bass—played a cover of Crowded House’s little-remembered hit “Something So Strong,” which, among the longtime Sanders supporters and the newly Sanders curious, could have been mistaken for some kind of secular revival-rock tune: “Something so strong could carry us away / Something so strong could carry us today.”
The Madison rally was the kickoff for a carefully curated, four-day tour, from Wisconsin, through Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. These are states where, in the 2016 primaries, Sanders either won or ran competitively against Hillary Clinton, and where, in that year’s general election, Clinton’s “blue wall” fell to Donald Trump. Clinton hadn’t made a single campaign stop in Wisconsin—a fact that became emblematic of the grip she lost on the region. Sanders, when he finally got up to speak, summoned this history. “Four years ago, despite losing the popular vote by three million votes, Donald Trump carried all of those states and won enough electoral votes to win the Presidency,” he said. “Together, we are going to make sure that that does not happen again. We’re going to win here in Wisconsin, we’re going to win in Indiana, we’re going to win in Ohio, we’re going to win in Michigan, and we’re going to win in Pennsylvania. And we’re going to win the election.”
The crowd went nuts. Sanders is currently the most well-known name in the crowded Democratic field. He can rightfully claim to have popularized many of the big policy ideas now championed by his competitors—taxing the rich, free college tuition, Medicare for All—and is leading the field in early fund-raising. He has framed his run for the Presidency not as a new effort but as a continuation of a campaign that many of his supporters—and hundreds of thousands of volunteers—believe he never really lost. (Last year, Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s longtime adviser, published a book titled “How Bernie Won.”) Now, in a single weekend, Sanders was going to cut across the terrain where he believes his hopes for the Presidency lie. The cranky old senator, the democratic socialist and 2016 insurgent, had come to the Midwest to make his electability argument.
After Madison came Gary, Indiana. In 2016, Sanders won the Indiana Democratic primary. But Lake County, where Gary is situated—the very northwestern corner of the state, which is, in some important cultural and economic ways, more tied to Illinois than to Indiana—went for Clinton. Gary is a working-class community and eighty per cent black. In 2016, black voters opted overwhelmingly for Sanders’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. The morning Sanders came to town, local community leaders had been invited to a roundtable discussion with Sanders at the Genesis Center, a preposterously large, Jetsons-era-inspired event venue, built as part of a failed revitalization effort in the nineteen-eighties. As the attendees trickled in, Meredith Colias-Pete, a reporter for the Gary Post-Tribune, pointed out some of the faces in the crowd: a guy from the steelworkers’ union; a local artist-activist. Colias-Pete had also heard that Gary’s mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, the former attorney general of Indiana, who, in 2016, supported Clinton, was planning to attend.
When the roundtable began, Sanders asked people to volunteer their questions and concerns, all at once. Questions were lobbed at him about jobs, education, the Green New Deal, health care, equality, fossil fuels, community policing, and the fate of “legacy” cities, older industrial communities where jobs have left and populations have declined. “The advantage of having a number of people make comments and ask questions, and kind of lump them together, is that you touched on a whole lot of fundamental concerns,” Sanders said, as he stood and held forth. He railed against austerity policies and discussed the relationship between youth unemployment and crime. “Somebody raised the question of the need for more black doctors, and that’s absolutely true,” he said. He riffed on the Green New Deal. He touted his support for a House bill proposed by Jim Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina (along with Cory Booker, Sanders’s Democratic competitor, from New Jersey), that would invest federal funds in distressed neighborhoods. Of a federal jobs guarantee, he said, “Is that a radical idea? I don’t think so.”
Last month, Sanders kicked off his campaign near his childhood home, in Brooklyn, New York, with a speech that was billed as a first glimpse of a new Bernie, a candidate who talked about himself and who tried to connect with voters on a human level. Implicit in this was the idea that talking about himself—and his youthful engagement with the civil-rights movement, in particular—would help him reach black voters. But in Gary, where those voters live, Sanders’s gestures toward biography were notably absent. He didn’t want to talk about himself. He preferred the fundamental concerns. As he wrapped up, someone asked him if he didn’t want to let the mayor say a few words. Freeman-Wilson was sitting a few seats to his right. “Oh, hi, mayor!” he said, and ceded the floor.
“First and foremost, let me see say, welcome to Gary, Senator Sanders,” Freeman-Wilson said. It was difficult to imagine past Democratic front-runners—the Clintons, Obama—making a campaign stop in a swing district without knowing exactly where the most powerful person in the room was at all times. (A spokeswoman for Sanders later said that Sanders knew Freeman-Wilson would be arriving late and that it was “always the plan” for her to speak.) “We appreciate that you are highlighting issues of legacy cities,” the mayor went on. “We gave a lot to this country, and we have been faced with a number of challenges. And the fact that you’re here really indicates your willingness to highlight issues that we face, that are very similar to rural communities.” When she finished, Sanders asked if the reporters in the room had any questions.
The first stop in Michigan was Coopersville, near the western edge of the mitten, where Sanders gave a brief speech at a union hall for plumbers, fitters, and service trades. “I am here in the Midwest for one reason,” he told the crowd. “And that is that I’m going to do everything I can to make sure Donald Trump is not reëlected President of the United States.” All along his tour, Sanders barely spoke about the rest of the Democratic field. His focus was on the President. “We have a President who is a pathological liar,” he told the Coopersville crowd. “And, when you talk about lies, the lies that Trump told on the campaign trail, the most profound lie of all was that he said he was going to stand with the working class of this country.”
The subtext here, as it was at various stops on the tour, was a message to white working-class voters: he’s not your guy; I’m your guy. During the 2018 midterms, much was made of Democratic inroads in Sun Belt states: Florida, Texas, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada. Part of Beto O’Rourke’s pitch to the Party is that his turnout record in the 2018 Texas Senate race, even though he lost, was promising enough that he could remake the map, drawing voters in places where the Party hasn’t recently been able to compete. (This would also be part of the pitch of a potential Stacey Abrams campaign.) Sanders doesn’t want to remake the map; he wants to reclaim it. He’s campaigning in South Carolina, and Texas, too, but he’s more often talking about the Democrats’ “mistake” in the Midwest, in 2016. At times, it can feel like Sanders is preparing to run against the Trump from 2016, who ran against bad trade deals and the Washington establishment. In 2020, Trump is just as likely to run on the economy and against the Democrats’ “extreme” ideas. Sanders die-hards love their candidate’s consistency, but will he be able to adapt?
A few hours later, Sanders appeared at a rally on the grounds of a community college in Warren, Michigan, just outside Detroit. (In some kind of cosmic joke, Sanders’s tour of the Midwest took him through not one but two towns named Warren, one in Michigan and one in Ohio.) While he spoke, a reporter from the local ABC station filmed a live shot. “He’s here hoping to gain support from an area that largely supported Donald Trump in 2016,” she said. Onstage, Sanders was talking about Trump’s attempt to redo NAFTA: “Today, I challenge Donald Trump: for once in your life, keep your campaign promises. Go back to the drawing board on NAFTA. Do not send this treaty to Congress unless it includes strong and swift enforcement mechanisms to raise the wages of workers and to prevent corporations from outsourcing American jobs to Mexico.”
Stump speeches are designed to be applicable to all audiences, given over and over, though compressed or expanded depending on time constraints. And Sanders is less into modulation than most politicians. Even so, he did alter his pitch slightly during the course of the weekend. In Michigan and Ohio, Sanders spoke not just of his plan to make public colleges and universities tuition-free but of helping “our young people who don’t want to go to college—who just need the training to be plumbers, and carpenters, and sheet-metal workers” and of getting them the training that they needed. On Friday, in Madison, and on Sunday, at a rally near the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, those young people went unmentioned.
The Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, a regional union, held its annual two-day conference this year at the Mohegan Sun Pocono, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The union endorsed Sanders in 2016. On Monday, he dropped by the casino, at lunchtime, to give a short, health-care-focussed speech, touting the need for Medicare for All. The room was full of nurses, most of them women, who nodded in agreement as Sanders gave his diagnosis of the problem and his prescription for fixing it.
Afterward, I spoke for a few minutes with Carol Godwin, a bone-marrow-transplant nurse at Temple University Hospital, in Philadelphia. Godwin has been a nurse for thirty-two years and supports the broad ideas behind Sanders’s Medicare for All pitch, mostly because she’s seen the frustrations and horrors of the current system up close. She was feeling ready to support Sanders in the election, even though she supported Clinton in 2016. “I wanted a woman to be President,” she explained. “And I really thought that she had a grasp on a lot of knowledge, too.” I asked Godwin, who is black, what she made of Sanders’s difficulty reaching black voters in the last election. “I think, this time around, he’s going to be able to attract those voters,” Godwin said. “I mean, there are a couple of people that stand out a little bit more because you know their name. Like Cory Booker, I know his name. I know Joe Biden’s name. Everyone else, I have no clue what they’re about. And there’s fifty of them! And I think that’s going to be a problem for the Democratic Party.”
In 2016, Sanders, in some ways, was caught short by his own success, prompting headlines like “Bernie Sanders Never Thought It Would Get This Far.” But his current campaign, with its robust staff, its fund-raising, and its fleshed-out foreign-policy platform, has been built for a front-runner. “There’s a three-out-of-four chance we are not the nominee,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s campaign manager, recently told The Atlantic, “but that one-in-four chance is better than anyone else in the field.” Yet it’s possible to imagine this moment as the high point for Sanders. His poll numbers, as Nate Silver has pointed out, are going in the wrong direction. Joe Biden, who has been leading in many of the polls, looks ready to join the race. Parts of the Democratic establishment—wealthy donors, big think tanks, activists—are starting to talk about how to blunt Sanders’s momentum. At Sanders events, his supporters were already worried about their candidate getting boxed out. The prospect of going into the Democratic National Convention without a clear winner in the delegate count has both sides nervous.
The final stop of Sanders’s tour was a Fox News town hall in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at the former Bethlehem Steel mill, which, since its closure, in 1995, has been converted into a corporate arts-and-cultural center called SteelStacks. Outside the venue, police patrolled the parking lot on horseback, and Trump supporters held signs protesting a Fox News event. Inside, the old Bethlehem Steel furnaces were visible through the walls of glass. A few hundred people were in the seats. Even though the audience was selected by Fox News through an online registration—a process that included answering a series of questions, including one that prompted participants to share their views on socialism—it seemed like a fairly Sanders-friendly bunch.
Going on Fox News had been a controversial choice for Sanders. The network has operated increasingly in synch with Donald Trump’s White House, and the Democratic National Committee had recently decided not to let the network host a primary debate. But the Sanders supporters entering the town hall weren’t bothered by his choice. They thought that someone should speak to Trump’s supporters. Before things got started, the audience members were instructed to silence their cell phones and keep quiet during the taping. As the countdown to going live wound down, Martha MacCallum, one of the hosts, gave everyone a little encouragement. “All right, here we go,” she said. “Good show, everyone. Thank you, senator.”
Sanders got through the town hall in the same way he gets through all his campaign stops, taking it back to his message and statistics at every turn. A few minutes before the show started, his campaign had released his tax returns, and the hosts were eager to talk about the twenty-six-per-cent rate that he paid last year, on more than five hundred thousand dollars in income. Why didn’t he volunteer to pay more taxes, MacCallum asked. “Well, you can volunteer, too,” Sanders said, to cheers. “Progressive tax rate!” someone in the audience shouted, instructions be damned. The hosts tried to poke him on socialism, his age, the tax increases that Medicare for All will demand. But the room was clearly with the candidate. It seemed to confirm what Sanders is so fond of saying—that many of the ideas considered “radical” when he ran four years ago are now the litmus test for the Democratic field. Whether that means he’ll win is another question. “Relax,” Sanders said, at one point. “We’ll get through this together.”