By Jacob Solis
“Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” — Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders crested the stage to a roaring chant at his rally in Gateway Plaza on Tuesday, Aug. 18. From behind the podium, 73-year-old Sanders launched vigorously into an hourlong stump speech that drew cheer after cheer from a crowd of more than 4,000.
Sanders’ Reno rally was only the most recent in a string of successful campaign events for the dark horse presidential candidate. In Portland, 30,000 supporters came out to see Sanders while 27,000 showed up in Los Angeles. This is to say nothing of the 100,000 people who tuned in to a Sanders video simulcast to more than 3,000 events across the nation.
Despite those impressive numbers, the Sanders campaign had humble beginnings.
Sanders kicked off his campaign at the end of April to little fanfare. Most pundits and media outlets wrote off the left-leaning Sanders as a flash-in-the-pan candidate who would be unable to carry his campaign through the primaries. Nevertheless, Sanders has managed to prove the pundits wrong by drawing some of the largest crowds of any candidate from either party with his populist message.
“I think he’s a powerful speaker,” said Donovan Kohler, a neuroscience major at the University of Nevada, Reno and volunteer for the Sanders campaign. “I think his ideas are novel and speak to young people, especially the one about free college tuition.”
Kohler’s sentiments echo the concerns of a generation as more and more young people grow concerned with the increasingly prohibitive cost of higher education. The cumulative American student loan debt has risen to $1.2 trillion, according to a report by CNBC. That number has prompted official solutions from both Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who still leads the pack among Democratic candidates.
While the Sanders surge is ongoing, Clinton is still beating Sanders by 18 points in the latest nationwide CNN/ORC poll, despite the fact that Clinton’s unfavorability rating currently sits at 53 percent. Even so, Sanders’ recent surge in both polls and rally attendance has demonstrated that Clinton’s lock on the nomination has all but disappeared.
“I think he’s got potential,” said Jose Marroquin, a student at UNR, studying political science. “I feel like if he could work well with Congress, he could absolutely get it done.”
Whether Sanders gets a Congress he can work with remains to be seen. The elections are still 15 months away and Sanders still needs the money to stay in the race that long. For the moment, however, Sanders has been raking in record numbers of individual donations after refusing to take money from political action committees and billionaires.
“The campaign contributors are so powerful that no president – not the best – can do it alone, unless millions of people stand up and loudly proclaim that this country and our government belong to us and not just a handful of billionaires,” Sanders said.
In addition to railing against the existing campaign finance system, Sanders spent most of his time on stage addressing the economy, raging against the low federal minimum wage, income inequality and the much-criticized Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“We need a trade policy that tells corporate America that they cannot shut down factory after factory and send jobs overseas,” Sanders said.
On TPP, Obama’s flagship trade bill, Sanders is but one of many Democratic critics. Just two weeks ago Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown threatened to block the nomination of a high-level White House official in protest of the Obama administration’s secrecy protocols that have prevented a number of congressional staffers from reading the bill.
Sanders also touched upon health care, education and immigration before slamming Republican ties to big business and stating that the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2010 Citizens United case both undermined and corrupted the democratic process by treating corporations as people.
Yet, for all the rhetoric and jumps in the polls, Sanders is a candidate in an election that is over a year away. The campaign trail is a long one, and the candidate’s trek has only just begun.
Jacob Solis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.