Sen. Bernie Sanders brought it all back home this weekend, hosting a pair of boisterous rallies in two cities he credited for a political awakening that set him on a path that could, as he launches his second presidential campaign, deliver him to the White House.
In Chicago on Sunday night, Sanders again offered a rare public embrace of his roots, telling supporters at Navy Pier’s Festival Hall that his years here as a student activist were “an extraordinary moment in my life and very much shaped my world view and what I wanted to do.”
But even as Sanders broadened the scope of his stump speech to include more details about his youth, his message never strayed far from the core argument that would vault him to political stardom decades later. Sanders’ vow to uproot and discard the private health insurance industry and deliver a single-payer system still drew the loudest applause from an already spirited crowd. The twin spectacles of Brooklyn and Chicago will also validate the belief among Sanders’ allies that his support is stickier than many observers, including some wishful Democrats, might have hoped or predicted.
The Sanders campaign’s goal now, it has become increasingly clear, is to lock in the base — which in the first week of his candidacy delivered more than a million volunteer sign-ups and a remarkable $10 million in small dollar donations — while seeking out fresh lines of connection to the unconvinced. In an interview before the trip, campaign co-chair Nina Turner described Sanders’ task nearly a year out from the Iowa caucuses as “layering on top of what he did in 2016.”
“The Democratic Party has adopted so much of his platform, so he won the moral argument in 2016,” Turner said. “Now what he has to do is help people to see ‘the why,’ the reason why he’s doing this, what drives him.”
On Sunday, Sanders’ “layering” led him to offer an unusually blunt explanation of his view of race in the context of a now-familiar political message.
“Our campaign, as you know, is about fundamentally ending the disparity of wealth and power in our country, when so few have so much and so many have so little. But as we do that,” he said, “we must end the disparity within the disparity.”
Sanders also continued to speak, as he did in Brooklyn, in more personal terms about the experiences that inspired his political career. It is a new brand of outreach that plainly discomforts him and, as he teed up the biographical sections of his weekend speeches, Sanders sounded almost apologetic for digressing.
“You deserve to know where I come from, because family history obviously heavily influences the values that we develop as adults,” Sanders said on Saturday, as if justifying the introduction of a new riff to an audience that came out to hear the old standards.
In Chicago, where he graduated from college in June 1964 less than a month before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Sanders recalled his activism — and arrest a year earlier at a protest against school segregation on the city’s South Side — more enthusiastically, but still paused at the conclusion to explain why he told the story.
“The reason I tell you all of this is because my activities here in Chicago taught me a very important lesson that I have never forgotten,” Sanders said. “And that is that whether it is the struggle against corporate greed, racism, sexism, or homophobia, environmental devastation, or war and militarism, real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up.”
It is a living room message for a candidate who, since the early days of his 2016 run and into the first days of this bid, has routinely filled much larger spaces.
Sanders will return to the Midwest in a few days with a charge to do the same when he makes his 2020 Iowa debut. On Thursday, he will hold a rally at the Exhibition Hall at Council Bluffs’ Mid-America Center. President Donald Trump, who held an event in the adjacent arena with a higher seating capacity last October, will surely be watching the gate.
A day later, Sanders will be in Iowa City, where the University of Iowa’s campus Democrats and the city’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter will cohost a rally in a ballroom that fits more than 1,000 people. Then it’s on to Des Moines for a Saturday morning event on the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
Sanders dueled Clinton to just short of a stalemate in Iowa during the last primary, but he won’t be sneaking up on anyone in 2020. Anything short of outright victory in the Hawkeye State and New Hampshire, which Sanders won handily in 2016, could send his campaign sputtering into what are expected to be more challenging competitions in Nevada, South Carolina and California, which moved its primary up to Super Tuesday.
But California seemed a long way off on Sunday night in Chicago, where patches of Lake Michigan sat icily still as its waves labored toward its western bank. Inside Navy Pier’s cavernous Festival Hall, as Sanders left the stage to the Doobie Brothers’ “Taking It To The Streets” the heat of the 2020 presidential primary was steadily rising.
Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the location of the planned event in Council Bluffs, Iowa.