Bernie Sanders at Dartmouth

Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, held a rally Sunday, Sept. 29 at BEMA. People were allowed into the large outdoor seating area at 4:30 p.m., with the event scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. Attendance at the rally was open to both Dartmouth students and the public. 

The event began with a member of the Portland, Maine-based band Rustic Overtones performing politically-themed songs that touched on issues like big pharma and institutional racism in America. Leading up to Sanders’ speech, community organizers and student supporters of his gave speeches explaining their support for him. 

When Sanders appeared on stage around 30 minutes after the advertised start time, the crowd perked up noticeably. Sanders launched into one of the defining aspects of his platform — attacking wealth inequality. He proposed a wealth tax to fund universal early childhood education and decried the “corrupt political system,” arguing for the overturning of Citizens United and a move to public funding for elections. He called for an end to voter suppression, including in New Hampshire, which resonated with the audience, as evidenced by the loud applause this line received. Students in the audience, who were disenfranchised by the new voter registration law passed by Governor Chris Sununu, which bans with students with out-of-state driver’s licenses from registering to vote in New Hampshire. He continued his appeal to youth voters by declaring that “Your generation is the most progressive young generation in the history of this country.” 

He then moved on to the topic of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and strengthening labor unions in order to improve life for working-class Americans, as well as voicing his support for equal pay for equal work. As this is one of Sanders’ signature issues, he seemed particularly enthusiastic and loud when discussing workers’ pay. On the subject of college affordability — another key issue for Sanders’ base of young people, many of whom are currently intending to or are currently enrolled in higher education of some kind — he said that he supports making public higher education tuition-free, allowing all students to graduate debt-free. His proposal to cancel all student debt drew applause from the audience gathered at BEMA, many of whom are taking out loans to attend Dartmouth College. Sanders said he would pay for this initiative by taxing trades carried out by Wall Street firms, justifying cancelling all student debt by drawing comparison to the government bailout of big banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. 

Sanders also brought up his signature single-payer healthcare plan, Medicare for All, mentioning his belief that healthcare should be guaranteed as a human right. Other topics Sanders covered included his aggressive plan to tackle climate change — saying that he supports doing everything humanly possible to save the earth — and criminal justice reform — Sanders is in favor of eliminating federal funding of private prisons and ending the war on drugs. Furthermore, Sanders supports the legalization of marijuana and expunging the criminal records of people who had been convicted for marijuana-related offenses, which drew some of the loudest applause of the whole event. 

On immigration, another contentious issue in the current political climate, Sanders claimed he plans to extend legal protection to Dreamers and end family separation at the border. He then added that he believes that a woman’s right to control her own body is a constitutional right and announced that he would only nominate Supreme Court justices that support Roe v. Wade, which proved to be another popular applause line. Finally, Sanders claimed that he also supports stronger gun control measures like expanding background checks, closing the gun show loophole, ending the straw man provision and banning assault weapons.

Sanders ended his speech on a populist note, saying that his campaign is based on the principle of “us, not me.” He also declared “we are 99%,” a reference to the Occupy Wall Street Movement representative of Sanders’ stance against big banks. Through increased voter turnout, Sanders claimed that he believes the 99% can help him win both the Democratic party nomination and the presidency. 

However, this may prove more difficult than it sounds, as Sanders’ path to the Democratic party nomination path to the Democratic party nomination  is more narrow than in 2016. The support of some groups of voters who were crucial members of the Sanders coalition four years ago is being siphoned away by other candidates, which was not an issue back in 2016. Conventional wisdom has it that fellow Democratic candidate Joe Biden is drawing the support of moderate, more socially-conservative Democrats; candidate Pete Buttigieg is ahead of Sanders in the polls in Iowa, the site of Sanders’ first national electoral success, where he came in just .3 percentage points behind Hillary Clinton. Additionally, candidate Elizabeth Warren is of particular concern, as she and Sanders are hoping to draw support from the same pool of progressive voters, especially young voters

While the Sanders campaign is facing difficulties this election cycle that it did not back in 2016, he still maintains a base of support. Despite hailing from Brooklyn, Sanders is typically seen as a senator personally representative of his state, Vermont. Furthermore, despite his age, he draws the bulk of his support from the youth vote. Dartmouth College, perched on the New Hampshire-Vermont state line and packed with college students, offers a prime opportunity Sanders to capitalize on his regional support and his support among young people. His numerous endorsements from local and state politicians in Vermont, as well as his high demographic support among young people should translate to high levels of support — and high enthusiasm — for the Sanders campaign at the College in particular. 

However, the expected enthusiasm from Dartmouth students was not on display at the rally. In anticipation of Sanders coming to campus, the Dartmouth Democrats chose BEMA to hold the event due to its large capacity, expecting high attendance, but BEMA did not come close to hitting its capacity. Even though doors to the event opened an hour prior to the start time, people trickled in, even after the event began and were able to easily find prime seats. 

The Sanders campaign is losing the battle for the support of Dartmouth students. Both the Warren and Buttigieg campaigns are more visible on campus, often tabling at Novack Café or convincing students to pledge to vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, indicating greater student organizing strength for those campaigns relative to the Sanders campaign. This is no surprise, given Dartmouth students’ expressed 2020 preferences. In a poll conducted by The Dartmouth, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Donald Trump gained more support than Bernie Sanders, who earned the support of 15.3% of students, putting him in fourth place. This differs sharply from the 2016 narrative of the Sanders campaign on the College’s campus; at the time, student activists were largely supportive of his campaign. This grassroots energy translated into Sanders winning 53% of the Democratic primary vote in the Hanover precinct, which is a much higher share of the vote than his campaign can probably earn in the 2020 election cycle due to votes lost to the much larger pool of 2020 Democratic candidates.  

Leading up to the 2020 primaries, it does not seem like the momentum in New Hampshire is on Sanders’ side. His lack of strong student support signals that his campaign is not likely to perform as well in Hanover as in 2016. While Sanders won the state of New Hampshire comfortably in 2016, with over 60% of the Democratic primary vote, he is currently polling at 18%. This does not bode well for Sanders, signalling that his 2016 support is being split among several candidates in this election cycle. Without overwhelming grassroots support like he had in 2016, staying competitive in the primaries, much less winning them, will prove a challenge for the Sanders campaign.