GRINNELL, Iowa — Bernie Sanders doesn’t try to warm up the crowd with a canned political joke, and he doesn’t try to move listeners with a touching story about his grandparents’ struggles to achieve the American Dream.
The U.S. senator from Vermont also doesn’t try to convince anyone he’s running for the Democratic nomination for president because he’s worried about his children’s future.
Sanders, the unlikely political star with the wild-professor hair, takes the stage and quickly pivots to the economic justice issue that has consumed his entire adult lifetime: his belief that greedy corporations and lobbyist-loving billionaires control this country and that the nation’s middle class is slowly disappearing as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
“Today we live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, but most Americans don’t know that because all of the wealth and income is going to the people on top,” said Sanders, who dishes up a speech loaded with statistics and policy positions and short on political red meat.
The crowd loves it.
More than 500 have gathered on a sultry afternoon in the college town of Grinnell to applaud long and loud as Sanders calls for universal health care, similar to the European-style health model; free family leave, similar to that found in Sweden; free college tuition at community colleges; and an end to a Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and labor unions the ability to pump unlimited amounts of cash into elections.
He also supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, same-sex marriage and a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour.
“The people of our country fully understand that corporate greed is destroying our economy and that it is wrong. It is unacceptable that almost all of the new income and wealth being generated is going to the top 1 percent,” said Sanders, who at 73 is four years older than when Ronald Reagan — the nation’s oldest president — was inaugurated.
If the Republicans have Donald Trump, the Democrats have Bernie, a man who is as beloved by his supporters for his straight-talking style as is the New York reality TV star.
The self-described socialist is currently climbing in the polls, both in Iowa and across the nation. He is closing the gap with front-runner Hillary Clinton, who started the race with a formidable edge but has watched it narrow as Sanders has gained momentum.
In Portland, Oregon, Sanders recently drew a crowd of 19,000. Earlier this summer in Council Bluffs, more than 2,500 came out to see him — and that was before his campaign had really caught fire.
In Grinnell, many in the audience were college students, who swarmed Sanders afterward in hopes of landing a selfie. Several said they liked him because he came off as “real” and he was talking about the issues that mattered to them.
“Bernie connects better to me,” 21-year-old Becca Heller, a Grinnell College political science major, said when asked why she preferred Sanders over Clinton.
“We can’t pay for college, and he notices. He actually has noticed for a long time, (while) everybody else is talking about it now because it’s going to get votes,” Heller said.
She also said she isn’t eager to see another Clinton or another Bush in the White House, although if Sanders can’t secure the nomination, she is open to supporting Clinton.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said voters like Heller are both an asset and a liability to Sanders, who must battle the idea that he is too liberal to win the nomination, much less a general election.
“Many of the people who are for him understand he’s not going to be the nominee. He’s not going to be president. (But) they understand they’re sending a message by voting for him and telling pollsters they’ll vote for him,” Sabato said.
For his part, Sanders isn’t fond of either the Sabatos or the political pundits of the world who say his chances are slim. He hates political horse-race questions, saying the media are more focused on who’s up and who’s down than on actual policy. He is all about policy.
“The American people want a media that is not just engaged in campaign gossip and looking at politics as you were a football game. They want a media that helps us debate the most important issues of the country,” said Sanders, who often sounds like the angry hippie or grandfather in the race.
Sanders grew up in Brooklyn, New York. After college he moved to Vermont with his wife and his brother to buy 85 acres of land. It was there he started the Liberty Union Party and began his political career, running and losing on the Union Party ticket numerous times over a 10-year period before leaving that party to run as an Independent. In 1981 he won his first election, ousting the Democratic mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city.
In his tenure as mayor, Sanders worked on the mundane, notably overseeing an efficient way to remove snow. He also tried his hand at foreign policy, sending letters to various world leaders in the then-Soviet Union and in China, seeking disarmament. In 1985, while he was Burlington’s mayor, he traveled to Nicaragua to express support for Daniel Ortega.
He also traveled to Cuba during the same time period but did not score a meeting with Fidel Castro.
Sanders served for eight years as mayor before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990, where he served for 16 years.
In 2006, Sanders was elected to the U.S. Senate. He received national attention in 2010 when he launched an unsuccessful filibuster against a tax plan that Democratic President Barack Obama brokered with Republicans. Specifically, Sanders objected to extending the tax cuts given to the wealthy under then-President George W. Bush.
In the Senate, Sanders is respected as a “voice on the left,” although he is hardly a powerhouse in getting legislation passed. He is respected by his colleagues, although he is not always keen to work out compromises.
“Compromise is not high on his list,” acknowledged Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the Cook Political Report. “But unlike (Ted) Cruz, he’s not willing to shut down the government when things don’t go his way.”
Last year, however, Bernie Sanders did strike a deal with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs in light of news that veterans were dying while waiting for health care. Sanders is chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
When he jumped into the presidential race earlier this year, he did so with little fanfare and the belief among some that he was running to make sure his economic and social justice message was a part of the 2016 debate.
Then he started to rise in the polls, becoming a political star with a certain segment of Democrats who are yearning for someone other than Clinton. His rise is surprising, especially considering that he has never been a member of the Democratic Party. (In Vermont, voters do not register with any political party.)
Sanders is an unabashed socialist who has long criticized the two major parties as interchangeable peas in a pod. He does not, however, consider himself a socialist in the communist sense of the word, but as a European-style socialist who supports workers’ rights in the form of paid vacation and family leave requirements.
Sanders attributes his own rise to the fact that voters want a different type of politician in this election cycle.
“The media often asks me why it is we seem to be generating so much enthusiasm and why we have so much energy on this campaign,” Sanders said. “And my answer is that the American people are sick and tired of establishment politics, with establishment economics and establishment media.”
Contact the writer: email@example.com, 402-444-1309