Mr. Sanders’s enduring base shows the fissures along class lines in the Democratic Party, with those struggling most eager for his promises of change.
Credit…Kitra Cahana for The New York Times
By Jennifer Medina and
- March 9, 2020Updated 8:15 p.m.
PHOENIX — “This is a campaign of the working class, by the working class and for the working class!”
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont nearly shouted those words to a raucously supportive crowd here last week. The line received thunderous applause, as it always does.
At campaign events over the past year, Mr. Sanders has spoken to tens of thousands of people who come to hear his message of political revolution — who come to imagine a country with universal health care, no student debt and a $15 minimum wage. Almost every line he says onstage rises to a crescendo, inviting cheers of appreciation. With every promise and policy proposal, the crowd becomes a sea of waving blue and white signs with the “Bernie” logo.
The Sanders campaign has exposed a class divide within the Democratic Party: His promises of a leg up are most alluring to those who need it, and most confounding to those who do not.
Six more states go to the polls on Tuesday in what is now a head-to-head matchup in the Democratic presidential race between Mr. Sanders and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. The path for Mr. Sanders to retake a delegate lead is much narrower than it was a week ago, but no matter how the primaries turn out for Mr. Sanders, he has built a fierce following of voters who want and expect more from their party, from their government, from their country.
That’s how Audrey Yanos views Mr. Sanders and this political moment. Ms. Yanos, a 39-year-old medical administrator, has voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election in her adult life. But Ms. Yanos has misgivings: Those Democrats, she believes, have never done all that much to deliver the promise of the American dream. She has begun to feel that the country has betrayed people like her.
Mr. Sanders, she says, is different. Ms. Yanos voted for him in 2016, and did so again last Tuesday in the Colorado primary, which he won easily over Mr. Biden.
“We are struggling all the time, and what we have is not working,” she said one evening last week during a brief break between dinner and her son’s basketball practice. “We’re all scraping by, one disaster away from real catastrophe, and we need someone who understands that.”
That sentiment — that Mr. Sanders understands the catastrophe looming for so many people, and that so many other politicians do not — is central to Sanders supporters, and crucial to understanding where these voters might turn if Mr. Sanders is not the nominee. If the Democratic Party wants to keep such voters engaged and committed to showing up in the fall, leaders will have to speak more directly to them and better address their needs.
Many of his supporters know what it’s like to struggle in one way or another. They need prescription drugs but can’t afford them. They are buried under relentless student debt. They juggle jobs with caring for ailing parents or young children, or both. They want better lives, more stable lives, and need some help.
When Mr. Sanders has asked people at his town halls to tell their stories — often by prodding them to share their insurance premiums or deductibles — their voices have sometimes shaken. Sometimes there are tears.
Credit…Daniel Brenner for The New York Times
Ms. Yanos was the first person in her family to attend college. She considers herself lucky because a scholarship paid for tuition and books, so she graduated with about $25,000 in debt, which she paid off last year. Financially, she is far better off than her parents were when she was a child. And yet she sees no evidence of a booming economy in her own life.
“I look around and see so many other people barely holding on,” Ms. Yanos said, choking back tears as her kids did their homework at the kitchen table. “It’s not that I think it will be all rainbows and sunshine if he’s elected, things won’t change overnight. But people younger than me, they are going to demand change in their lifetime.”
Everything seemed to be clicking for Mr. Sanders before last week. He had finished at the top of the nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, then dominated in Nevada. But on Super Tuesday, a surging Mr. Biden all but extinguished that momentum, winning 10 of 14 states with the support of many black working-class voters. Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders are now heading into primaries in Michigan and other major Midwestern states that are favorable in many ways to the former vice president. But Mr. Sanders also enjoys plenty of support in these states, particularly from white working-class voters.
In both of his bids for the White House, Mr. Sanders has shown that his populist message resonates in some corners, even as it repels much of the Democratic establishment, which has steadily lined up behind Mr. Biden. Rallies for Mr. Sanders often resemble rock concerts, drawing tens of thousands of people who come decked out in campaign gear, with T-shirts that proclaim “Unidos con Bernie” and signs that say “Not me, Us.”
Polling throughout the campaign has shown Mr. Sanders drawing some of his strongest support from voters with household incomes under $50,000; his numbers taper off as incomes rise. A month ago, when he was leading in the polls, people with household incomes of $50,000 and under supported Mr. Sanders twice as much as any other candidate. At that time, he commanded the support of most Democratic voters making $100,000 and under.
Exit polls on Super Tuesday did not ask respondents directly about their income. But in the three states where he won and exit polls were conducted — Colorado, Vermont and California — Mr. Sanders performed five to eight percentage points better among those without a college degree than those with one. In Massachusetts and Minnesota, both states he had hoped to win but ended up losing decisively to Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders’s numbers among college graduates lagged his showing among those without degrees by double digits.
“Bernie is the only candidate I’ve ever felt a connection to, in a sense that he genuinely cares about the working class in a way that no other candidate has ever shown support to us,” said Andrew Hilbert, 26, who came to see Mr. Sanders in Phoenix.
Mr. Sanders’s support this year has proved particularly enduring in the West, where many communities remain visibly scarred by the Great Recession. And his focus on the working class helps explain part of his appeal to Latino voters, who are disproportionately young and are more likely to come from a working-class background. Many such voters point to the illusion of an “up by your bootstraps” mentality and strongly believe that the only way to create a fair economy is to drastically change the way the current one works.
“We’ve had decades of policies fail to meet our needs, and we’ve got to break that cycle,” said Antonio Arellano, the executive director of Jolt, a group in Texas that focuses on turning out young Latino voters and that endorsed Mr. Sanders. “What we’re seeing for the first time ever is the courage to break from the past and radically build the future. Not taking us as a given entity, but as a constituency that is demanding something more.”
Credit…Kitra Cahana for The New York Times
Having spent her life in Orange County, California, Rita Xochitl Estrada, a 39-year-old fitness instructor and student at California State University, Fullerton, has seen countless examples of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Ms. Estrada calls herself a “romantic but pragmatic” socialist, and said she was not all that optimistic that Mr. Sanders would win the primary, let alone the presidency. Her biggest hope, she said, is that he is ushering in a new era of politics with more of a focus on the poor.
“If nobody pushes it, we will never get there, which is why we are still stuck the way we are,” said Ms. Estrada, who came to the polls with her 21-year-old son, who also voted for Mr. Sanders. Like other Latino supporters of the Vermont senator, Ms. Estrada views herself as part of a movement of that will live on regardless of his political fate, and that harks back to the Chicano movement of the 1960s and ’70s. “This is a country that wants the current class structure to stay in place, and it’s really hard to fight against that.”
Many working-class supporters point to Mr. Sanders’s opposition to the Iraq war as the initial issue that drew them into his orbit. Having watched many friends sign up for the military as a path to the middle class only to come back with traumatic mental and physical injuries, they are deeply skeptical of American intervention overseas, as Mr. Sanders has been for his entire career.
There are also voters who are drawn to Mr. Sanders’s consistency in a chaotic, punishing world.
Originally from El Salvador, Ruth Trujillo-Acosta, 59, and her husband, Gustavo Acosta, 61, are just trying to make things work. They worry about retiring, afraid that they have no savings. They worry that their children are not even thinking about college because it’s too expensive. They both went to college as adults, but still have student loans to pay off.
The two now live in Holyoke in western Massachusetts. She is a mental health clinician. He is an academic adviser at a community college. They consider themselves independents, but are unequivocal about supporting Mr. Sanders.
“We really are paycheck to paycheck and this is the guy — he really is going to be able to change that,” she said as the couple waited for Mr. Sanders to begin a rally last month in Springfield, Mass.
She was cleareyed that Mr. Sanders might not be able to carry out all of his policy proposals — “I don’t think that he’s going to create a complete revolution right away,” she said — but she said he at least provided hope, and it was worth giving him a shot.
Their support of Mr. Sanders, she said, comes down to this: “Our values are with this guy.”
Sydney Ember reported from Phoenix, and Jennifer Medina reported from Denver. Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting from New York.
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