BROOKLYN, New York — It was an afternoon of sunlight, revolution, and unicorns in Prospect Park, a fitting setting for the beginning of Bernie Sanders’s last stand in New York.
“Welcome to the political revolution!” he said after taking the stage to a hero’s welcome. “This is a campaign that one year ago was considered a fringe candidacy, 70 points behind Secretary Clinton. They don’t consider us fringe anymore.”
Sanders seems to have closed the gap here dramatically over the past few weeks. The massive crowds of supporters at his rallies across the state give the impression that Hillary Clinton—with her more modest venues and mostly small crowds—is falling behind.
But the polls show a different picture.
Yes, Sanders is closing the gap, but a Real Clear Politics average of New York state polling shows Clinton leading her opponent 53.5 to 41 percent. Recent polling has him closer, and the Clinton campaign is prepping for a tighter-than-expected race.
And while Sanders campaign staff has sought to dial back expectations as well, his supporters, seeing the enthusiasm around them, believe that the momentum and ultimately the state is behind the Vermont senator. Many said they expect nothing less than an epic upset on Tuesday.
The rally on Sunday did little to quiet their enthusiasm. According to Sanders, about 20,000 poured into the sunny park on Sunday afternoon. In the back of the park, some climbed trees to get a glimpse of his shiny, slightly sunburned head peeking out from behind the lectern.
“[Hillary] came and spoke at my school, there were like 200 people there,” said Sequoia Sellinger, a student at Purchase College who was perched behind a metal barrier around the large press pen. “There were more people outside her speech than were actually there.
“I believe Bernie will win the New York primaries,” she said. “This rally, the Bronx rally… the one in Poughkeepsie, there were like 10,000 people there.”
“We know who’s [at Hillary rallies]. It’s not young people,” said Christopher Graham, of Fairfax County, Virginia, noting that while he can’t vote Tuesday, he did vote for Sanders in Virginia.
Sellinger and Graham were two of the thousands who flooded into a meadow in Prospect Park, clutching cardboard cutouts of their hero—both full body and College GameDay-style heads—swaying to the sounds of indie rock band Grizzly Bear, and listening to celebrities of various levels of famous actors and musicians who took to the stage to say why they were feeling the Bern.
The smell of marijuana wafted through the spring air, with intermittent plumes of white smoke coming up from the crowd as if from individual smokestacks.
“He is a politician we can all trust, and just that alone is such a rare thing, it’s like unicorn rare,” Justin Long—a Brooklyn-born actor who played “Mac” in those grating Mac vs. PC commercials—told the crowd, moments after describing grainy footage of Sanders in the ’80s as like watching “an actual unicorn.”
There was a deep distrust of the polls among Berniacs and a pervasive belief that the system and the polling was rigged to begin with—because of major media outlets and their association with large corporations.
“It’s all a lie. It’s a conspiracy by CNN and MSNBC,” Chuck Blocker, 62, of Connecticut, partially joked.
“Yeah, polls can be misleading, if it’s only reaching 2 percent of the actual population, and those who take it don’t necessarily reflect the demographics of the polling group,” said Daeha Ko, 37, of New York. “It’s like anything in statistics, it can be manipulated by specific media outlets, or if the media outlet is reaching toward specific demographics.”
Demographics have been a problem for Sanders in his push to the White House, and New York has been no exception.
Both candidates spent several days last week courting the African-American vote, which has been particularly unreceptive to Sanders.
The race has also gotten more divisive on the Democratic side in recent weeks, perhaps because the stakes are so high.
At the Democratic debate on Thursday, the two contenders seemed tired of the other’s presence in the race.
That lack of love was on full display Sunday, when the mention of Clinton’s name provoked loud boos from the Sanders crowd.
The Vermont senator’s riff on Clinton’s failure to release the text of her paid speeches to banks like Goldman Sachs provoked a particularly raucous chorus of jeers from his supporters.
In the end, Sanders’s final pitch deviated very little from his standard pitch, but his supporters didn’t care. They were there to be in the movement that Sanders himself has said he never imagined would come to this point.
“Let’s have a record-breaking turnout on Tuesday,” he said. “New York state, help lead this country into the political revolution!”
Not everyone was on fire.
“Yeah, I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m not a native New Yorker, but I’ve lived here a long time now, almost two decades, and the city is very progressive,” said rally attendee Jolia Burke. “But Hillary’s been here a long time and has a foothold, so I don’t know. I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m really hoping to be shocked.”
—with additional reporting by Kelly Weill.