And at the front of it all stood a small, 74-year-old man with a strong Brooklyn accent — Bernie Sanders at the Greensboro Coliseum Sunday with nearly 7,000 people in attendance.
“You look great from here,” he said.
A little more than four months ago when Sanders, an Independent senator from Vermont, entered the race, few predicted he would become a serious contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
Niko House, chairman of UNC’s College Students for Bernie Sanders, said Sanders’ ability to relate to the base of the Democratic Party rather than being selected by its elite has contributed to his rise.
“It’s because he reaches past things — he includes race; he includes LGBTQ; he includes everybody,” House said. “But he never marginalizes anybody.”
Ferrel Guillory, a UNC journalism professor and director of the Program on Public Life, said Sanders is like Donald Trump in the Republican primary — he’s capitalizing on dissatisfied democratic voters who were hit hard by the economic recession.
“In the U.S., debates happen within the parties,” he said. “And I think there is a substantial — but not a majority — expressing grievances over stagnant incomes.”
During his speech, Sanders spoke mainly on economic matters, including the widening income gap and the need for government action in the middle class.
“There is something profoundly wrong when the top tenth of a percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent,” he said.
Sanders’ most recent milestone was overtaking Hillary Clinton in polls of Iowa Democrats. He currently leads Clinton in New Hampshire as well and has gained on Clinton in national polls.
Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College, said much of Sanders’ success is the result of Democrats feeling “Clinton fatigue.”
“I think it is certainly Clinton not connecting and the issue of the email still hanging over her,” he said. “She’s been able to get the elite’s endorsements but is not tapping into the grass roots of the party.”
But House said it was Sanders’ ability to connect that has brought him to the front, and if not for that, dissatisfied Clinton supporters could have switched to other candidates besides Sanders.
Sanders spoke about his campaign’s success at the event but urged his supporters to stay active.
“If we stand together and do not allow them to divide us up by race, or if we’re LGBT, or sex or where we’re born, there’s nothing we cannot accomplish,” he said. “But we cannot accomplish any of that unless people join in the political process, so tonight please join in the political revolution.”
Bitzer said while Sanders’ success has been surprising, he still has quite a few hurdles in front of him.
“I think when you willingly give up an ammunition like super PACs, you’re putting yourself at a distinct disadvantage,” he said.
Guillory said while Sanders’ approach to campaigning might work in smaller states like New Hampshire or Iowa, once he reached a larger state like North Carolina, he’d need television ads to reach voters and infrastructure to get supporters to the voting booths — both of which are costly.
House acknowledged that Sanders may have some trouble down the road. But, he said, if money were everything, Hillary — who had out-fundraised Sanders — would be winning.
“You don’t need the money if you have the policy,” he said.
Bitzer also said Sanders will have some difficulty getting young people — a large part of his voter base — out to vote, and that populist candidates like Sanders have historically done poorly.
Guillory said drawing huge crowds is remarkable, but Sanders needs more than crowds to win.
“Crowds don’t necessarily translate into votes — that also depends on crafty TV advertising and a good social media campaign,” he said.
At the end of the rally, Sanders met his supporters in the crowd.
He will continue his campaign in Virginia — but he could be back. House said during a conversation with Sanders prior to the event, he expressed interest in speaking at the Dean E. Smith Center.