HUDSON, New Hampshire—At the loading dock behind a supermarket, around the corner from a martial arts studio, Bernie Sanders stood to address his latest throng of supporters.
It was Monday, the day before the New Hampshire primary, and this was already the senator’s third event. An overcast sky gave off the hint of a coming snow, but the pavement below was all brown sludge and puddles.
Dressed in a heavy winter coat and blue slacks, the senator stood in front of a campaign sign. His famous white hair seemed to blend in, ever so slightly, with the light beige painted brick walls that made up the back of the shopping center lot where this campaign office stood. There were no bells or whistles beyond that. Sanders was underneath a canopy so rusted that parts of it looked like they would soon fall. Behind his crowd was a tree line. Behind that tree line was the St. Patrick Cemetery.
No one said that campaigns were glamorous. But this particular spot truly drove that home.
His supporters didn’t mind any of that, of course. Nor did they seem to notice that they were standing in a mix of snow and water. Sanders was there to greet the crew that had been helping him get out the vote. His presence was their reward.
The event had all the feel of a labor rally—the union leader calling his members to action in the shadow of their workplace. “The fundamental problem in this country,” declared the senator, “is the power of the billionaire class.” And more than a few of those in attendance would later refer to the senator as a “man of the people.”
But Sanders isn’t a man of the people in the literal sense. Among those running for the Democratic nomination, he has among the least interaction with the public—eschewing the photo lines and voter interactions that mark his competitors’ rallies.
Rather, the senator is a blunt political force. And he has put together a campaign operation unmatched in its reach—one that can compel hundreds of volunteers to stand in snow puddles across from a cemetery; and one that seems likely to catapult him to a win on Tuesday, and, from there, to the Democratic nomination.
Consider just the data. There are more than 150 Sanders campaign staffers in New Hampshire along with 17 state offices. On Saturday alone, the campaign had about 1,000 out-of-state volunteers helping with get-out-the-vote operations on top of the 14,000 regular, active volunteers in the state. The number of households that the campaign visited just that day was 150,000. The state only has about 640,000 household units, according to Census data.
The apparatus that Sanders and his team have built in New Hampshire is hard to miss, if for no other reason than they don’t want you to miss it. His canvassers are visible in their Bernie Blues and his yard signs dot even the most remote of roads. At the state Democratic Party dinner on Saturday night, they drowned out almost every other section. They were also the only ones to viciously boo another candidate (in this case, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with taunts of “Wall Street Pete”).
And yet, Sanders’ supporters shudder to think of him as an actual politician. In interviews on Monday, several scoffed at the word, calling it pejorative and dismissive of the work he is doing.
“That word to me has a negative connotation,” said Kathleen Flury, who had traveled from out of state to hear Sanders at Franklin Pierce University on Monday morning. “Trump is a politician. Bernie is a movement.”
The reality, of course, is that Sanders’ life has been all about politics. He has served in elected office for decades, first as a mayor, then as a congressman, and finally as a senator. But even as he ascended the ranks, few saw him actually ending up at the doorstep of winning the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, not least because he doesn’t even identify as a Democrat. When the senator launched his first presidential run in 2016, it was in a makeshift press conference right outside the United States Senate.
That bid was heavy on inspiration and motivation. And the current one has those, too. But there is a more business-like feel this go-around. The crowds in New Hampshire all know Sanders' stump speech by heart (perhaps because he never deviates from it) so much that they eagerly complete his favorite lines.
“How much did Amazon pay in federal income taxes last year?”
And the subtext of the last presidential run—mainly, that he was doing it not to win but to reset the contours of the political conservation—is now part of the public selling point.
“He has taken the far left of the Democratic Party and put it dead center,” actress Cynthia Nixon said on Monday, introducing Sanders.
Whether a more ruthless, cunning and business-like operation translates into more votes seems unlikely. Sanders scored 60 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote in 2016. He’d be having a good night if he got half of that on Tuesday.
But 30 percent could be enough for a win, which would mark two popular vote victories in as many nominating contests. And then, a whole number of states await where Sanders may be even better positioned. Analilia Mejia, Sanders’ political director, said that the campaign has a political operation in every Super Tuesday state. They also have the backing of 37 political interest groups and 23 labor entities—all of which can pick up the organizational slack. More than 1.5 million people have donated to the campaign for an average donation of just over $18. He won’t compete with Michael Bloomberg on the money front. But without the help of an infinite bank account, he has created arguably the most impressive money machine in the history of Democratic politics.
Constructing that has been an historic feat. And while some Sanders supporters may view it as something bigger, others see it as, indeed, a political masterstroke.
“Is he a politician? Yes, he is,” said Rene, who, per instructions of the campaign, declined to reveal his last name. He had come up from New Jersey to stand behind the grocery store, to hear Sanders speak before going out and knocking on doors. “He’s a great one. A lot of them suck.”