Senator Bernie Sanders is once again on top.
Yes, he’s 78. Yes, he’s a Democratic Socialist. OK, so he had a heart attack five months ago.
His supporters just don’t care.
“So what? He’s got plenty of energy,” said Susan Flanigan, a Hampton, N.H., resident who is supporting Sanders. Of course, she has weighed the other candidates, but she doesn’t think the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, or former vice president Joe Biden could win against Trump. It also doesn’t hurt that she had three separate Sanders volunteers knock on her door recently.
“I’ve had nobody else ring the bell,” she said.
Nearly tied with Buttigieg in Iowa, Sanders is ahead in the New Hampshire polls. He might seem an unlikely front-runner for what Democrats regularly describe as the most important election of their lifetimes, but his supporters, who may catapult him to victory, see him simply as the best candidate to beat Trump. They say he is consistent and authentic and a champion for the little people. (It’s not lost on anyone that those attributes echo another recent anti-establishment candidate, who is now living in the White House.)
The senator is “shaking his fist at what [voters] believe is an unfair system,” said Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College in Henniker, N.H. "Government doesn’t serve them, and folks in Washington aren’t listening to them. That’s the secret sauce to the Sanders campaign.”
The continued enthusiasm at his campaign events is palpable.
“He’s incredibly genuine. He’s a real human,” said Amy McNair, 48, at an event in Derry Wednesday morning. McNair first fell in love with Sanders during the 2016 primary and said that although she liked other candidates, "Bernie still comes on top for me.”
Though the Derry rally took place on a weekday morning, every seat in the historic opera house was filled, and most of those in the rickety balcony, too. Supporters sported a motley collection of Sanders paraphernalia: T-shirts, stickers, a canvas tote bag with a rainbow array of bald Bernie silhouettes. When Sanders asked members of the audience how much their current health insurance deductibles were, the crowd enthusiastically participated, shouting, “$4,500! $6,000!”
The campaign has backed up its fundamental economic message with a massive ground game in New Hampshire, boasting 17 field offices and 150 staffers. Last weekend, 14,000 volunteers knocked on doors for the senator, according to the campaign.
The outreach makes a difference.
Jodi Newell, 39, considered casting her vote for Elizabeth Warren or Tulsi Gabbard. But she felt Sanders was more connected to what was going on with people like her. She had lost her children’s father to an overdose, and she was particularly moved when the Sanders campaign organized a forum where Newell and others talked about their experiences with the opioid crisis. The campaign dispatched two top surrogates, Susan Sarandon and Nina Turner, to join the conversation.
“They’re really trying to talk to the people going through it," Newell said.
But Sanders skeptics are more worried than ever. First, Sanders’ promise that he can bring a surge of new voters into the process didn’t pan out in Iowa. Participation rates were nowhere near the record-high numbers that Barack Obama helped inspire in 2008.
“The coverage and the polling of Bernie Sanders has not met reality,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston Democratic strategist.
Critics add that his progressive policies — Medicare for All, free universal child care, the cancellation of student debt — might turn off the moderates and disaffected Republicans the party needs to win in November.
“We got to get relevant. This is all something that is not working the way that it needs to work," said longtime Democratic strategist James Carville on MSNBC after the Iowa caucuses, expressing his alarm about how well Sanders was doing. "Do we want to be an ideological cult, or do we want to have a majoritarian instinct?”
It’s not that Sanders’ supporters are blind to those arguments against him. They’ve heard them. They’ve considered them. And they’ve chosen the snowy-haired Vermont independent anyway.
“I thought Hillary was more electable," said Nikki Withrow, 45, who voted for Clinton in the 2016 primary and now supports Bernie. "And she wasn’t.”