A sizable and energetic crowd gathered in Calder Plaza on Sunday afternoon for a “Get Out the Vote” event to rally with 2020 presidential democrat candidate Bernie Sanders. The crowd in the packed plaza looked a lot like Bernie’s support might be expected to based on turnouts around the country in 2016 and the 2020 race thus far: generally young and predominantly urban white. The vast majority of the crowd appeared to fall in the 30 & below demographic, unusual for a standard political gathering (we estimate a staggering 70% of those in attendance fell into this general age range), though Sanders has proven to be anything but the standard political figure.
There also seemed to be an additional smaller chunk of Sunday Sanders congregants hovering around the 50-60 year old demographic. While the vast majority of those in attendance were young white Michiganders (there was a decent contingent of minority support in the 7,600 attendees), polling and recent voting results were validated with most minority supporters falling into the 30 & below crowd.
The demographics in yesterday’s gathering should not go unnoticed. Bernie has connected with many who are just beginning their careers as well as those just beginning to wind them down and the crowd on Sunday afternoon reflected that very consistently. While his fellow democratic candidate, Joe Biden, has seen sweeping victories among older racial minorities – thanks in no small part to standing as Vice President for Barack Obama – Sanders has just as impressively and emphatically garnered support among the younger generation in those communities.
While the attendance breakdown on Sunday should hardly be surprising, as Sanders has routinely reached out directly to younger voters with calls to get engaged, the sheer turnout of so many young people for a political rally the morning after a Saturday night in the city was staggering.
“Bernie represents so many people that I feel he is our best choice.”
Of the dozen people we spoke to before events kicked off, only one had ever attended a political rally previously, a hopeful sign for Bernie’s prospects in Michigan’s primary this Tuesday. His repeated calls for a new generation of voters to get involved in the process have yet to materialize in the primaries in large enough numbers to swing results his way thus far, a realization he made in a recent interview. However, yesterday’s rally shows that there are some signs that a change in that trend may be coming his way in Michigan.
We spoke to two older Bernie supporters, Michelle & Daniel Benningfield, as the plaza began to fill about why they came to the rally and how they interpreted Sanders’ support among the younger generations.
Michelle was the only attendee we spoke with that had ever been to a political rally before Sunday. Michelle has seen Bernie speak before, but wanted to make it out to see him with the full momentum of the presidential primary underway. She explained why she supports Sanders, “I think Bernie is the best person to help lots of people,” explaining that his message reaches beyond the rich to the mass of everyday people that Sanders has argued are often overlooked by the political establishment. Daniel agreed, “Bernie represents so many people that I feel he is our best choice.”
Before interviewing some of the younger attendees in the growing crowd, we also asked them what they felt was at the root of so many young people turning out for a political rally on a weekend. Michelle said, “I think (young people) are sick of the status quo, like many people in my generation. It hasn’t change yet and now we’ve got a chance to change things. Vote for Bernie!” Daniel put it simply, “The change that needs to occur is what Bernie represents.”
“The environment is more open than if we went to a different type of rally.”
Those sentiments were validated when we headed off to interview other attendees making up the largest swath of the crowd: young people.
Shelby Denhof described what motivated her to attend her first political rally on Sunday and what she finds so appealing about Sanders, “I appreciate how Bernie amplifies the voices of underrepresented people in our communities.” She also appreciated Sanders’ direct appeals to young people, specifically in the realms of college tuition and student loan debt, as well as Sanders’ unique positions on US/Israel foreign policy.
Brothers, Gabe and Zach Stepanovich, each had their own reasons for attending as well. Gabe told us, “I think it’s just good to see all the political candidates,” while Zach specifically liked Bernie’s consistency in speaking to the issues of healthcare and economic justice in the United States over the course of his political career.
We asked another group of friends (last names withheld) what appeal Sanders had with them. Daniyelle told us that his policy of decriminalizing marijuana on the federal level and its impact on the current and future prison population was important to her. Emily doesn’t intend to go into education, but nonetheless found Sanders’ attention to the issue important. She explained that his calls for raising teacher salaries was one of the issues that most intrigued her about Bernie and thought it was necessary to reward the profession, which routinely covers classroom necessities out of pocket. Nile explained that she loved how passionate Sanders was about climate issues and most impressed by the way he has put his climate plans and strengthening of governmental agencies like the EPA at the forefront of his campaign.
We asked what inspired them to attend their first political rallies on Sunday. Daniyelle described her reasoning, “The environment is more open than if we went to a different type of rally.” Emily agreed, “The energy is a lot different and more accepting.” Finally, Nile chimed in, “Same. Accepting environment,” before adding, “but also something to do.” That sentiment should not be understated. The notion that a political rally is “something to do” for a young person is definitely a far different vision of passing the time than young people have had historically. However, it has been widely recognized that Sanders rallies often have the appeal and energy of a rock concert; something remarkable for the political scene and a 78 year old headliner.
“We are going to move the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour. We are going to have equal pay for equal work…We are going to make it easier for workers to join unions, not harder.”March 8, Bernie Sanders in Grand Rapids.
Sanders has undoubtedly tapped into the youthful exuberance and passions of the younger generation and his rallies reflect that. When asked what had them coming out to attend a political rally on a weekend, the overwhelming and succinct initial answer of nearly every one we asked was nearly the same in almost every case: “Bernie Sanders!”
Things got kicked off with a rock concert in the less metaphorical sense as Grand Rapids punk rock band, Singing Lungs, took the stage. The band played the soundtrack to the steady march of attendees through security and into Calder Plaza. The crowd grooved along to the band’s traditional punk sound for around 20 minutes. Before playing their final song, the lead singer remarked “This song is called ‘Disappearing Act’ and we hope that’s what #44 (sic) is going to do!”
Next up to the stage was the Kalamazoo artist, Michigander. The band departed from the rougher punk sound of the opener and, instead, brought a more ethereal style reminiscent of an amalgamation of the bands U2 and Manchester Orchestra. Michigander played songs from their most recent EP and the crowd seemed to thoroughly enjoy their sound. Both bands repeatedly reminded attendees to get out and vote on Tuesday in Michigan’s democratic primary.
After both bands wrapped up their sets and most of Calder Plaza had filled, opening speeches were given by a succession of various supporters, activists and political figures including, most notably, Jesse Jackson, who officially endorsed Sanders at the rally in Grand Rapids.
“In the richest country in the history of the world, we are not going to continue to have three billionaires owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society.”March 8, Bernie Sanders in Grand Rapids.
After one speaker left the stage, an “Eat the Rich” chant broke out on the risers behind the podium and spread to significant portions of the crowd before staff rushed to quiet it. The chant marked one of only a few occasions that broke away from a largely positive afternoon, aside from the more typical criticisms and attacks on rich Americans, the pharmaceutical industry, health insurance companies, the fossil fuel industry, etc.
Campaign staff and volunteers were visibly frustrated and concerned that the chant would be picked up by opponents of the campaign or cast a shadow over the event as a whole in media coverage.
While certainly not the majority of Sanders’ supporters nationally or in attendance on Sunday, there has been concern about a worrisome segment of supporters that run in the more aggressive and radical lane of his various political positions. For some Sanders supporters, the political revolution is not (or should not be) as much about creating a system of fairness and reform, but levying derision and punishment on the guilty classes at the heart of Sanders’ scorn. Sanders recently spoke out against the more antagonistic rhetoric and vitriol which at times has infected lower levels of his campaign and grass roots support this primary season, though with an addendum that included all campaigns.
While these factions of his movement are surely not the lion’s share of his support, it is an issue that Sanders should deeply consider as he hopes to spin his political revolution into a whirlwind of delegates that can carry him to the nomination. History has shown us this: Revolutions have a nasty habit of first-generation idealists succumbing to the unbridled vitriol and inflamed passions of the next.
His hope for a movement that lasts beyond this campaign season must take into account the unintended consequences of the often unparsed language used by his surrogates and even Sanders, himself.
As Jesse Jackson took the stage, it further underscored the narrow dichotomy attempting to be navigated: attacking the rich, corporations, various sectors of industry and economic power, while attempting to propel a message of widespread unity. Jackson’s “Nobody Out” speech in Calder Plaza called for justice, equality and various other unifying principles for all and with no one left out. However, that message of unity can sometime seem to end for Sanders and his supporters where feelings of anger, resentment and disenfranchisement begin towards the faceless “rich.” If Sanders hopes to broaden his support, it will likely be necessary to modulate the revolutionary tones of his anti-rich sentiments and forward the same policies under a more tempered approach that embraces the contributions of the rich to our society and future, even if he believes they need to take on a larger share of the burden than they do presently.
“We are going to move this country to public funding of elections so all people can vote.”March 8, Bernie Sanders in Grand Rapids.
Sanders’ speech highlighted all his familiar issues and had the crowd cheering most of the afternoon. Among those issues were campaign finance reform, a rise in the minimum wage, increasing labor union formation, removing government restrictions on abortion, raising taxes on wealthy Americans, upending the healthcare industry and replacing it with “Medicare for All” and so on.
While many of the issues Sanders discusses are handled with the height of seriousness, not all disagreements were handled in the absence of a little humor. Sanders joked about the hard undertaking he has endured in congress over the course of his career of listening to the conservative republican speeches of his colleagues, which drew chuckles from the candidate and the audience.
The test will be whether the excitement and enthusiasm among Sanders’ most devoted supporters will generate the necessary turnout to win or if the movement he has worked to build represents as big a portion of the electorate as Sanders and his supporters believe. In short, are Sanders and his policy proposals as popular on the scale necessary to win as his supporters and the candidate believe them to be.
That differential, voter enthusiasm vs. voter plurality, has left similar political movements on the outside looking in: George McGovern & Ron Paul come to mind. While Sanders has seen more success than most could have predicted when he announced his initial run for the nation’s top office in 2015, whether that passion can hand him the presidency is yet to be seen. Sanders’ two rallies in Michigan on Sunday (Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor) netted an impressive 17,000+ ardent attendees, but that number pales in comparison to the over 1.2 million Michiganders that voted in the 2016 Democratic primary.
Sanders won that primary over the eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton, in 2016, and he hopes to do it again on Tuesday, but he will have to lock down several other states with progressive-leaning democrats at their core and likely expand his base if he hopes to gain the nomination.
You can check the status of your registration, find your polling place and even preview your precinct’s ballot using the State of Michigan’s voting tool here: https://mvic.sos.state.mi.us.
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