KEENE, N.H. — Bernie Sanders addressed a crowd of supporters that filled the 46,000-square-foot Keene Recreation Center and spilled out onto the lawn during a political rally in Keene, New Hampshire, on Saturday.
“Let me tell you a secret,” said Sanders, as he gripped the podium and leaned in close to the microphone, “We’re going to win New Hampshire.”
The rally consisted of an hour-long speech during which Sanders touched on a number of issues central to his campaign, a question-and-answer session with the audience and with the media.
During the speech, Sanders made a number of bold campaign promises centered around increased public spending including free public college education, reduced interest rates on student loans, accessible and affordable health care and Social Security with extended benefits “for decades.”
Sanders also took a stand against recent Republican budget cuts, which he argued were harming children and the elderly.
“This is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world,” Sanders said, “and our seniors should not have to decide between food and medicine.”
According to several major media outlets, Sanders’ candidacy is jeopardized by the senator’s lack of charisma. “He’s not charismatic,” opined Peter Beinart in a column for The Atlantic. The Wall Street Journal said that Sanders “… typically reels off dry statistics” during his stump speeches. The National Journal described a May 10 political rally as “… vintage Sanders: brimming with umbrage and entirely lacking in charisma.”
Yet Sanders’ oratory and signature hand gestures – “with the tips of his fingers close together, as if grasping a jelly bean,” according to Time’s Sam Frizell – elicited emotional responses throughout the speech.
Several participants vocalized their agreement with key points, some under their breath and some out loud. Sanders had to pause several times to wait for spontaneous standing ovations to end.
During the question portion of the rally, most participants prefaced their questions with a statement establishing a personal connection to Sanders. “I’ve been a supporter for three years,” said one man. “I actually moved to Vermont for you,” said another woman, laughing. “You’re my senator.”
“He waved at me. I almost cried,” joked 20-year-old Hinesburg resident Mary Washburn, who saw Sanders at the Strolling of the Heifers parade in Brattleboro earlier that day.
This outpouring of support is reflective of Sanders’ popularity in Vermont, where a 2011 Public Policy Polling report had him at a 67 percent approval rating – making him the third most popular U.S. senator within his home state.
Outside of Vermont, however, Sanders’ clout decreases proportionally with distance. In New Hampshire, Sanders trails Hillary Clinton by only 28.5 percentage points, according to polling aggregator RealClearPolitics (RCP). In South Carolina, he’s down by 43 points. In Iowa, that number is closer to 50.
Part of the problem, Sanders said during the rally, is that the mainstream media tends to either ignore him or write him off as a fringe candidate – focusing on his eccentricities while skirting around his positions on serious issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the Citizens United ruling.
“What we have got to do – and the role that you have got to play – is to demand that local and national media start focusing on the real issues. You asked me, how do we defeat this idea that I am a, quote-unquote, ‘fringe’ candidate. You’re doing that here today,” Sanders said.
Sanders’ popularity has been consistently on the rise even before he officially declared his candidacy May 26. Fringe candidate or not, he’s now the second-most popular choice for Democratic nominee in the country after overtaking Vice President Joe Biden last week, according to the RCP database.
Clinton, up by 47.5 points nationally, is still by far the favorite to win the Democratic nomination according to RCP. However, she came out only eight points ahead of Sanders in a recent Wisconsin straw poll.
John Nichols of The Nation characterized the close polls as “another sign of unexpected and significant support” for Sanders. During the rally, however, Sanders said that he had no intention of coming in second.
“My message today is ‘Do not think small, think large,’” he said.