Five hours before Bernie Sanders goes on stage for the first time after his defeat in the Nevada caucuses, 30 people are waiting in line to see him speak at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina, and 60 others, Sanders volunteers, are trying to drag them out of that line. Most campaigns are just happy to have people attend their rallies, but those who are invested in Bernie Sanders are a restless, relentless group. Those 60 people don’t see 30 supporters willing to spend a beautiful South Carolina afternoon waiting to watch a 74-year-old man talk for 45 minutes. They simply see help.
A 40-something African-American man who appeared to be the head of the volunteers—he refused to give me his name, but everyone kept referring to him as “Ernest”—began to address his charges. “Do you want what happened yesterday in Nevada to happen again?” he shouted.
"No!" the gaggle responded.
“Then,” he said, a little louder this time, “get out there and put up some damn signs and talk to some damn voters, and that won’t happen again!”
The type of person who volunteers for a Sanders campaign—almost all millennials, with a few boomer activists tossed in for good measure—is the type of person who believes a candidate loses a caucus not because of demographic trends or institutional advantages or casino unions, but because they—personally, them!—didn’t work hard enough. When you are young and want to change the world, you don’t point at statistics or grouse over prediction models at FiveThirtyEight: You go out there and try to do it yourself. And so a loss is a personal failing.
“Ernest” led half the volunteers to the line. “Get these people working for us,” he told them. “They ain’t helping anybody standing in line.” Twenty minutes later, everybody was out doing something.
There is a fun making-it-up-as-you-go atmosphere to a Sanders rally that fits the style of a disheveled insurgent candidate. The best example of this is the surprisingly high number of the volunteers’ shirts that are homemade. My favorite in South Carolina was a “Vote for Bernie” shirt in the style of Napoleon Dynamite. One couple had already screenprinted the photo of Sanders being arrested in the ‘60s during a segregation protest, particularly impressive considering the photograph had only been made public by the Chicago Tribune roughly 24 hours earlier.
There is an excitement to the crowd, hours before the event begins, that I’ve seen at no other rally, including Donald Trump’s infamous wild night in Mobile, Alabama, back in August; it is the thrill of being a part of something bigger than yourself, the undeniable cathartic high of feeling that you are being carried along by a wave, that you are downright blessed to live in such important times. It is the thrill, that is to say, of the young: Those who don't yet know to be disappointed by life, to recognize the limitations of earnestness and genial good intentions, to be unencumbered by the ugly complications of compromise and the dreary real world. They believe in Sanders because they have to believe in something: They believe in Sanders because he, after all this time, still believes himself.
One volunteer told me the most amazing thing about Sanders is how different he is than every other politician. “How can he be the only one?” he asked, as earnestly as anyone as ever asked anything. Someone driving by the arena stopped at a light, began to yell, “Socialism is for idiots! How are you going to pay for this shit? Trump! Trump! Trump!” At once, roughly a dozen volunteers turned around and began to wave and smile and clap. “Thank you!” they yelled as if they did this all the time. “We love you!” I turned to one. That was interesting. “It’s the only way to talk to people. If he could just listen, he’d understand. He’ll see what’s happening. He’ll see what Bernie is going to do.”
Sanders is almost certainly not going to be the next president of the United States. I say this not as a criticism of him as a person, or a candidate, or even as a movement: Already, he has far surpassed previous insurgent candidates like Howard Dean and Jerry Brown, and he’ll be able to say he won New Hampshire, and maybe even some other states, for the rest of his life.
But math is math, and Sanders is beginning to run into the same problem Hillary Clinton ran into eight years ago: No matter how hard he campaigns and how much he harnesses political winds, the numbers just are not on his side, for a variety of reasons.
The instigating event to ebb the Sanders flow might have been when he lost in Nevada, a state that was a lot better set up for him to win than many minority-driven states coming up. Had Sanders won Nevada, he could have come into South Carolina riding that old Big Mo, but now, well, the magnitude of the task ahead of him is becoming increasingly clear.
This is particularly evident in South Carolina, a state where Sanders is still running ads but is making few public appearances before Saturday’s primary. The Greenville event is the only South Carolina one currently on his schedule; he’s in Massachusetts on Monday and Virginia on Tuesday and is already looking to other Super Tuesday states afterward. Sanders has vowed that he’s “not skipping South Carolina," but it is a bad sign when you even have to say that, and he knows it. His speech in front of 5,205 supporters on Sunday night had a kitchen-sink quality to it, as if it was going to maybe be his one shot to touch on every issue before he moved onto somewhere else where the demographics work better for him.
It is undeniable that Sanders has been having a blast during these last six months. He’s pretending to do stripteases on the stump, he’s playing to the crowd like an old Borscht Belt comic, he’s even dancing on “Ellen.”
How intoxicating it must be to have spent your whole life as a quixotic, generally obscure odd-duck senator and then, suddenly, in your eighth decade, have thousands of people chanting your name in packed basketball arenas. There is a joy to Sanders' appearances—he took a moment in the middle of the Greenville speech to “show off my new sports jacket”—that belies the often-downer content of his speeches. Sanders' rhetorical trick is to bring up a viewpoint he disagrees with, portray it in the worst possible way and then appeal to the crowd’s outrage. He loves to set up bad guys, and then knock them down. It’s undeniably Trump-ian, albeit a little more knowledgable and a lot less caustic. Trump’s a good foil for Sanders: They’re both having a blast on the stump, and when Sanders mentions Trump’s name, he does it with an obvious eye-roll that seems inspired by the Donald himself.
Sanders is much better at this than he could have ever quite imagined himself being, and the crowd laps up every word of it. He’s found his place—although here in South Carolina, he looks to be on the verge of losing it. And if he is beaten in three of the first four states heading into a Super Tuesday where Clinton has nearly every organizing advantage, well, all of a sudden his campaign starts to look like a slightly more successful version of what we all thought it was in the first place: A message campaign—Regulate Wall Street—but not any actual challenge.
Which is fine and great, and probably what Sanders figured would happen all along. But what about all those supporters? What about those kids, the true loyalists who hiss and boo when Clinton comes on screen, who were too young for “change we can believe in” and, when they hear Sanders say, “We’re going to create a revolution in American politics,” unironically and unequivocally believe him? Where are they in eight years?
A friend of mine who is roughly the same age as me (40) came to me with a revelation the other day, one he confessed he found depressing. “I’m voting for Hillary,” he said. That wasn’t the depressing part: He has always liked Clinton. It’s that he was now too old to vote for the candidate all the kids love. “I’m now the person who looks at the guy saying, ‘We can make a difference! We can change the world!’ and saying, ‘No, you’re not actually gonna do that,'” he lamented. “Eight years ago I’m screaming ‘Yes we can!’ Now I just want someone who knows what they’re doing. It makes me feel very old.”
This is, of course, the path of all insurgents and revolutionaries: As The Dark Knight put it, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” If you truly believe that Sanders is going to change American politics, and then he doesn't … then what do you believe?
There are a few directions to go with it—this realization that life just keeps getting more complicated and confusing and disappointing, but I found the story of Steve Compton the most fascinating. Steve is in his mid-60s and wears a goatee and a baseball cap: Frankly, he looks like a Trump supporter (or one of my uncles). He has lived in Greenville his entire life—“except for one year where I lived in a foreign country: Manhattan”—and has seen every presidential candidate come into the state for most of his adult life.
He is taciturn and quiet and grumbles more than he talks, as if he is constantly chewing on something. And he is a socialist. “I’ve been a proud socialist since 1970,” he says. “There aren’t many of us down here.” In fact, Steve says he has met “one or two” in the last 46 years, but “they don’t live here anymore.” But he has remained steadfast, including helping to found a South Carolina chapter of the Socialist Democrats.
Think about that. This is a man who has been a member of the socialist party while living in South Carolina. For 46 years! Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a socialist is not only running for president, he’s winning states! He’s doing so well, in fact, that he’s filling up the basketball arena with supporters a few blocks from Steve’s house. Steve spent 46 years trying to find anyone who agreed with him on anything. Now there are 5,208 of them, and they’ve all converged just down the street.
“It’s amazing,” he says. “It’s something I never, ever thought I would see.” Steve shakes his head, trying to find the right word. “It feels like … like the kids are finally waking up.” I wondered what these young optimists would do if this Sanders business doesn’t work out, but Steve is just glad people are finally coming around.
“I’ve been around a long time, and I’d always heard these things went in cycles,” he says. “I’m a social worker in private practice now, and I deal with these people who are having trouble in their marriage, and when I learn about their lives, I find out that one of them is working 80 hours a week because he has to. Sh--, no wonder he’s having trouble in his marriage: He’s working 80 hours a week! That’s what’s going on now. This isn’t about Bernie: It’s about that, and student debt, and it getting harder for everybody. If it wasn’t Bernie, it would have been somebody.”
Steve looks like he has at last found his people, but he has no illusions; he says he’ll happily vote for Clinton if she wins the nomination. His is an experienced optimism. “You’ve gotta push as hard as you can,” he says. “Whatever happens with Bernie, this is a real thing. I’ve been waiting a long, long time for it—my whole life. These kids can’t get down if it doesn’t turn out. If Bernie loses, it isn’t the end of something. It’s the beginning. They gotta know that. To come this far is amazing. To come this far is a victory.” He laughs and waves at another volunteer. “It’s really a beautiful thing. It makes you feel like it’s all gonna be OK.”