ANN ARBOR, Michigan—After canceling events in Mississippi and Missouri in the hopes of avoiding an embarrassing loss in a state he carried in 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders has pushed to make inroads with black voters in delegate-rich Michigan.
But after scrapping a speech in Flint, Michigan, that was intended to “directly address the African-American community and make the case for why black voters should support him over Joe Biden” on Saturday, the Vermont senator returned to more comfortable rhetorical ground on the campus of the University of Michigan on Sunday, delivered to a more hospitable audience of young progressives.
In a program that front-loaded issues that are top of mind for the largely college-aged audience—student loan debt forgiveness, action on carbon emissions and renewable energy, and single-payer health care coverage—Sanders reiterated his metronomic pitch that a massive groundswell of new and young voters is the only way to defeat President Donald Trump in November.
“If you get your friends involved in the political process, there is no stopping us,” Sanders told the audience of roughly 10,000 people, crowded shoulder-to-shoulder into the Diag at the center of campus.
“We are taking on not just Joe Biden,” Sanders said later, prompting boos from many of the assembled. “We’re taking on the 60 billionaires who are funding his campaign, we’re taking on the Wall Street executives who are helping to fund his campaign, we’re taking on the corporate establishment; we’re taking on the political establishment.”
“And we,” Sanders concluded simply, “are going to win.”
To a one, supporters told The Daily Beast before Sanders’ stump speech that his meat-and-potatoes issues—maybe pizza-and-beer issues, considering the audience’s average age—had made the biggest difference in winning votes in this university town.
“I know a few people who will be in debt probably for a majority of their life due to student loans,” said Meera, a 23-year-old Ann Arbor native who was attending the rally along with her mother, Katie, who was born in Lebanon before moving to Michigan three decades ago. “He’s fought the good fight for as long as I can remember, and you know it’s been about the same principles and I think he’s a man of his word.”
Colleen McChenney, sitting along with companion Phillip Burnham on a scarf-slash-blanket at the back of the Diag, said Sanders’ signature issue had particular resonance for many of the young people in Ann Arbor.
“I’m 26, which means this is the first year off of my parents’ health insurance, so obviously health care is a huge issue,” McChenney, who originally backed Sen. Elizabeth Warren before the Massachusetts Democrat dropped out last week, said. “My older sister doesn’t have health care because she can’t get approved for Medicare. I just think that would be a benefit to us, and the fact that free health care is the thing in so many different countries.”
Burnham, too, cited the cost of higher education as the reason why he eventually came to support Sanders, after initially supporting former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“That’s important for me, because I don’t plan on going back to school, but we like opening up the opportunity,” said Burnham, who works at a rental car company. “That’s something I think is important, even though it’s not important for me, directly.”
Ann Arbor residents told The Daily Beast that despite its crunchy reputation, the university town has not always been politically engaged. Sanders—and President Donald Trump—have ignited an upswell in political activism, they said.
“It comes and goes, but I think it’s coming back,” said Mary Roth, a former clerical worker at the university who first moved to Ann Arbor as a UMich undergrad in the 1960s. “I was here doing military and draft and vets counseling during the Vietnam and the Gulf War eras—it was pretty radical! You know, if there’s a cause that brings people out, people will rally around it.”
Sanders’ stump speech—and those of his warm-up speakers, including Democratic rockstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, herself not much older than most of the rally’s attendees—did deviate from his typical remarks, emphasizing the endorsement earlier this weekend of civil rights activist and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson.
Ocasio-Cortez cited Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” in 1984 as a roadmap for building the kind of movement that Sanders hopes can help him recover from a bruising Super Tuesday, when black voters helped resuscitate the presidential campaign of Sanders’ sole surviving rival for the nomination.
“This is our opportunity to bring millions of working people into our political process, and transform who America can work for,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “This is our moment now.”