CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—As much as a Bernie Sanders rally can have a theme, considering the Vermont senator has been fighting for the same things for decades, the message of Thursday’s rally at the University of North Carolina was this: Bernie Sanders can beat Donald Trump, and yes—there is a difference between him and Elizabeth Warren.
“Senator Bernie Sanders is the original. People keep asking, ‘What’s the difference, what’s the difference?’” campaign co-chair Nina Turner said, echoing my colleague Hamilton Nolan’s question following Elizabeth Warren’s rally in Washington Square Park. “Baby, roll the tape, I’ll tell you what the difference is: he’s not new to this. He’s been on the front line.”
She then launched into a rundown of Sanders’ bonafides: standing with union workers on picket lines; his refusal of “big-dollar donations” in both the primary and general elections; his groundbreaking 2016 campaign. Earlier, her fellow co-chair, Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s fame, said that the most important thing was beating Trump in 2020, and that “poll after poll after poll” shows Sanders doing just that. This spurred chants of “Bernie beats Trump!” among the crowd of about 2,000.
It’s an odd predicament for Sanders to be in. After a 2016 campaign in which the divergence in approach and politics between himself and Hillary Clinton were crystal clear, Sanders is now being forced to do something he’s almost never been forced to do in his entire political career: differentiate himself.
Aside from Warren, a key Senate ally who has made a lot of the same criticisms of corporate power and has more often than not been cornered with Sanders as a sort of progressive tag team by other candidates in the debates, some of Sanders’ key proposals—namely his Medicare for All plan, which has been bastardized by other candidates looking for middle ground between the left and whatever the hell Joe Biden would do on that given day.
One thing is for sure: Sanders still knows how to draw a crowd. Just prior to “doors” opening at 4 p.m. (the rally was held in a small outdoor amphitheater), the line to get in snaked down the sidewalk and around the block for nearly a half-mile. And for an event held on a college campus, there was a surprising amount of diversity in age in attendance. (It’s also worth noting that Orange County, where Chapel Hill is situated, was one of the few counties outside of the western part of the state where Sanders received more votes than Clinton in the 2016 primary.)
Sanders supporters I spoke with, most of whom supported him in 2016, more often than not said Warren was a second or third-choice. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re buying that she’s a more palatable version of Bernie to the general electorate. Justin Trushell, a 43-year-old Raleigh resident who yelled “Screw Jeff Bezos!” during one mention of the Amazon CEO, said Warren was “a lot better than Joe Biden or most of the other candidates.” But as someone who runs an “NC for Bernie” Twitter account, Trushell’s top pick is obvious.
“Bernie is just a giant step above, in my opinion,” said Trushell, donning a black BERNIE 2020 shirt with the famous photo of a young Sanders being arrested during a civil rights demonstration. “He’s the one that’s really going to fight for Medicare for All. He’s the one who’s really going to stand up to power.”
“I was able to vote for him in , so I’m really happy that he’s running again,” said Caleb Burroughs, who drove nearly two hours from Greenville, N.C., to attend the rally. “He’s adding onto his progressive platform. He isn’t just sticking with the same old stuff.” It’s true, to some extent: while a broad expansion of the safety net and reining in corporate power and greed are still at the forefront of his campaign, Sanders’ universal housing plan and call for a moratorium on deportations—both rolled out in the past week—are notable and necessary (albeit logical) additions to that platform.
That’s not to say that everyone in attendance was a committed Sanders voter. Kate Grant, a first-year dental student, voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary and said she “agrees with a lot of his issues,” but said she’s unsure who she’ll vote for this time around. “I think he’s done a lot of great work and paved the way for a lot of really important ideas, but I think it’s time to pass it on to a younger generation that’s more diverse and representative,” she said. Undergraduate student Wayne Ruan said he supported Sanders’ plans to eliminate college tuition and debt, but that if the election were held today, he’d vote for Andrew Yang.
There was an air of excitement in the crowd that you might not expect for a rally this early in the race—North Carolina is a Super Tuesday state, and won’t hold its primary until March 3, 2020—and it was obvious that people wanted to get to Bernie as soon as possible. It felt like everyone around me expected the UNC Young Democrats chair to introduce Sanders a half-hour into the early evening rally; when she instead introduced legendary leftist academic Dr. Adolph Reed—a UNC graduate himself—there was polite applause and more than a few exasperated laughs. When Sanders finally hit the stage, however, the crowd exploded, and proceeded to hang onto his every word for the entirety of his nearly 40-minute long speech.
While Sanders called out frontrunner Joe Biden for being the beneficiary of high-dollar fundraisers near the end of the rally, he didn’t ever directly reference Warren. But Sanders and his surrogates did highlight one key aspect of his candidacy that does make him stand out from pretty much everyone else: an acknowledgment that the country’s institutions are currently far too conservative to try to ram programs like Medicare for All through.
“No president—I’m the only candidate who will tell you this, maybe the only candidate who’s ever said this—not President Bernie Sanders, not anybody else, can do it alone,” Sanders said. “We can’t bring about the changes this country desperately needs just through the president.”
“Understand that I’ll be back the day after we get inaugurated in order for us to come together to create an economy and government that works for all of us,” Sanders, who reached the one million donor mark on Thursday, added. “Not just the one percent.”
This isn’t exactly anything new from Sanders, but the focus on mass movement politics to apply pressure to institutions like Congress is something that could see more and more emphasis as the campaign progresses. While the narrative that Warren is a wonk and Bernie is an organizer is a bit half-baked—Warren’s proposals would undoubtedly reduce inequality and provide some degree of relief for the working class, and Sanders never gets much credit for the level of detail in his plans—stories are already leaking about Sanders’ and Warren’s fellow senators in the Democratic caucus anonymously griping over the prospect of actually taking action on all of their big plans.
Can you trust any of these people to get on board when push comes to shove? All signs point to: no, you can’t. And how Sanders and Warren plan to approach that matters, especially in the scenario where they’re in a two-person race for the nomination.
But it’s still early, which feels necessary to say as we’re already nine months and three rounds of primary debates deep into the unceasing presidential cycle. Joe Biden is still—rather infuriatingly for progressives—the frontrunner, and both Sanders and Warren have to overcome the perception among primary voters that Trump can only be beaten with an ardently centrist Democrat at the top of the ticket in November.
For now, however, the focus is on winning on new converts. There’s perhaps no better place to do that on the campus of a large public university, where more than a few in attendance have never cast a ballot before. Those already in Sanders’ corner dating back to 2016 and beyond are doing their part to spread the word that not only is he different—as well as the “original” leftist in the race—but also that he is the best: the best candidate to beat Biden, the best candidate to beat Trump, the best candidate to accelerate social progress in this country.
“He’s the most transformational candidate of my lifetime,” Trushell told me. “And I don’t think there’s been anyone quite like that in national-level politics.”