On May 21, George Yntema, an 89 year-old retired physicist from Tolland, Connecticut, mailed Bernie Sanders a check for $10,000. He didn’t know at the time, he told me, that it was well over the legal limit for a campaign contribution, which is $2,700, but he doesn’t much care now that he does know.
“I’m not worried about it,” he said. He expects that soon the campaign will send the bulk of it back, but “in the meantime, I hope they’re putting it to good use.”
In the context of the Sanders campaign, Yntema and the 29 other individuals like him who have mailed in checks exceeding $2,700 are Big Money donors.
Since launching his campaign in April, the Vermont Senator and self-branded Democratic socialist has raked in over $40 million, nearly matching Hillary Clinton—the Hulk Hogan to his Brooklyn Brawler in the primary—$26 to $28 million in the last quarter. But unlike Clinton, who has had to sing for her supper at dozens of fundraisers in swanky enclaves for the 1% like the Hamptons and once in New Jersey with Bon Jovi, the vast majority of Sanders’ money has come from hundreds of thousands of people sending in small sums—$30 on average.
Well, except for the few like Yntema.
Yntema doesn’t usually support campaigns, he said. “Basically, I’m in sympathy with him, with his idea that money is not properly distributed, but even more with his philosophical idea that a revolution in thinking has to take place, a profound revolution as to what we value.”
A considerable portion of that revolution has to do with the Democratic process itself, which Sanders sees as overrun with unfairness and corruption that’s been exacerbated in the post-Citizens’ United era, wherein a few people with a lot of money can funnel millions to campaigns via Super PACs, and the many are left unable to compete with their influence.
When Chris Pearson, a state legislator in Vermont, suggested forming a Super PAC to back Sanders, the candidate replied, “kill it,”according to The New York Times. “We’re giving up millions and millions of dollars, no doubt, but we will sink or swim based on what we get from the middle class of the country.”
Sanders’ 29 Big Money (again, for Sanders) Donors are largely older—many in their 70s and 80s—and retired, though some are in tech or in one case, wine. They are sprawled across the country, from Washington to Connecticut (and two from Vermont). And they tend to have one thing in common: they believe that Sanders, despite having spent 24 of his 74 years on Earth in Washington, is the outsider voice the country needs.
Victor Martino, 69, a retired former consultant from Washington who “worked a lot with Native American tribes in the Northwest” told me he likes Sanders, to the tune of $5,000, “because he looks like a real progressive and he’s acted like a real progressive for his Congressional career. There’s not much of an alternative right now.”
For Martino, Sanders’ greatest attribute is that he is not Clinton—who, he said is “too mainstream, neoliberal.”
“She supported TPP and then withdrew her support,” he said. “She was silent on the XL Pipeline and now she says she doesn’t support it after pressure from Bernie. She’s taking money from the big PACs, she’s cozy with the big corporate interests and probably a little too much willing to go to war.”
The Clinton-skepticism was shared by Yntema.
“I feel sorry for her,” he said. “She’s always felt that she ought to be president and, frankly, I don’t think she has the right stuff.” The email scandal in particular, Yntema said, was troubling. “That silly thing of putting personal phones messages on the same thing as business messages, that shows the lack of understanding of how a bureaucracy works.”
If it came down to it, Martino said, he would grit his teeth and vote for her over a Republican, “but I’d much rather have Bernie running. I think his message is resonating with the American people a lot more than anybody thought it might.”
Alex Payne, a 32 year-old tech consultant from Washington who sent Sanders $5,000, also cited Sanders’ position on income inequality as the central reason for his support.
“I think income inequality is the most important issue in this election cycle and I think he’s the only candidate, left or right, who’s bringing it up in an intellectual, factual way,” he said.
Payne isn’t going to be watching the debate tomorrow night because he will be attending “a live event put on The Nation magazine,” (which seems like a bad time for The Nation to be hosting an event) but he said he wasn’t sure Sanders’ performance would have any impact on how he’s viewed by the media and his critics.
“You know, every time he gets out there and makes a speech, no matter how good it is, people regard him the same way: he’s a crank, he’s a firebrand,” Payne said, “he’s taking on these issues that cut to the bone, so whether he does well or he does poorly, that’s how people will regard him.”
Frustrated, Payne added, “It feels like anyone who takes to the financial establishment is branded some kind of crazy outsider.”
And then there’s Keith Rudman, a 56 year old “self-employed trader” from Chicago who didn’t even know anything about Sanders until “probably a week or two” before he cut him a check for $5,000 on July 28.
He was aware of him, sure, but he just thought he was “someone running against Hillary with no chance of winning” until his nephew introduced him to some of Sanders’ online videos.
“I started watching his videos and thinking, Wow! Instantaneous. His message was just right on, ”he said.
Now, Rudman says, “I think Bernie’s great. I love him.”
Rudman said his support for Sanders doesn’t have anything to do with disliking Clinton. In fact, he likes Clinton just fine, “I think Hillary’s a good woman and she might make a fine president,” but, “It’s time to have something different.” Biden, too, is “a fine man,” but if he were to get in, “I think my passion will stay with Bernie.”
As for the other candidates, “I don’t even know who else is running. No idea.”
An earlier version of this article mistakenly described George Yntema as a retired neurosurgeon. He is in fact a retired physicist.