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Bernie Sanders hasn’t changed — and his supporters love that

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont high-fived supporters as he arrived at a campaign stop Sunday in Hillsboro, N.H.
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont high-fived supporters as he arrived at a campaign stop Sunday in Hillsboro, N.H. Mary Schwalm/FR158029 AP via AP

SALEM, N.H. — On a recent afternoon in Salem, Senator Bernie Sanders tackled an enthusiastic selfie line with workmanlike fortitude. The 78-year-old senator remained in the exact same spot, in front of a large blue and white “Bernie” sign, as young and old supporters flocked to take Instagrammable photos with him. With each admirer, he nodded curtly, put his left arm around whoever showed up, smiled briefly for the camera, and stood by for the next.

Sanders introduced the selfie line in the spring, presumably hoping to match the buzz that Senator Elizabeth Warren has generated with her own lines. But his approach to the 2019 phenomenon illustrates an essential fact about him: Sure, he will tweak his events slightly. He will pose for “fun” photos. He will tweet if he must. But at his core, he is the same democratic socialist who ran for mayor of Burlington, Vt., in the 1980s and for the Democratic nomination in 2016. He is who he is, and you know who he is, no matter how many Instagram filters you impose upon him.

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That lack of modification or compromise is a major draw for his fiercest supporters, and even for those who may not have supported him in the past, now that he is in a tight four-way contest in New Hampshire.

“He’s had the same principles his whole life,” said Patty Pagels, 54, who lives in Hampton and was volunteering at the Salem event.

The question now is whether those lifelong principles will be enough to sustain Sanders as he faces a packed primary field and tough questions about his health (he recently had a heart attack) and his age.

His supporters remain unfazed by the challenges ahead. Pagels acknowledged that Warren, who was a registered Republican before she said she became political, had a life story more similar to her own — Pagels was once a Libertarian. Even so, she values Sanders’s consistency.

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She brought her friend, Chris Dowd, 68, to the event; Dowd was still exploring her options but had a Sanders volunteer badge safety-pinned to her turtleneck.

“I believe he’s honest and genuine,” said Dowd, who voted in the Republican primary in 2016, for John Kasich. She disagrees with Sanders’s prochoice stance, but in this election, she was just longing for someone who would do what he or she said.

“What we need now is integrity, almost more than anything else,” Dowd said.

Some diehard Sanders supporters are eager to declare how far back their allegiance to the senator extends.

“Senator Sanders, I’ve been waiting since 2012, when I first discovered you, for you to run for president,” said Barb Hynes, 38, during a town hall in Concord. In an interview, she said Sanders had long been “consistent with his stances on the right side of history.”

That history has even become a selling point for Sanders merchandise. Ashley Morgan, a vendor outside the Salem event who is not affiliated with the campaign, said her best-selling T-shirt is one that shows a much younger Bernie Sanders getting arrested at a civil rights protest in 1963.

In such a crowded field, other candidates might tiptoe carefully around the egos of notoriously fussy New Hampshire primary voters while parrying questions. But Sanders doesn’t tend to treat attendees with that “customer is always right” philosophy. When voters stood up to ask questions at the Concord town hall, he often cut them off gruffly before they were done and sometimes chastised them for not fully understanding a specific policy.

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“Jeff, thanks for the question,” he said, as Jeff continued speaking.

Sanders won the New Hampshire primary in 2016 and is now statistically tied for first place in the state with Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and former vice president Joe Biden, according to a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll of likely voters there.

Despite the tough competition, Sanders is in a strong position: He boasts more loyal supporters than the others, with 64 percent of his voters saying that are firmly committed to him, and he also had more money on hand than any other candidate at the end of September — almost $34 million. He has raised the most from individual contributions, reaching 4 million individual donations earlier this month.

Some voters in Concord and Salem said Elizabeth Warren was a close second choice. But they cited Sanders’s long leftist history and his movement-building as reasons to support him instead.

“She’s not super grass roots,” said Manda Ngin, 22. “She’s like, ‘Oh, I can save us all.’ Bernie’s more [about] solidarity.”

At the Concord town hall, Sanders touched on his greatest policy hits — tuition-free public college, Medicare for All, a transition to a green economy (noting that climate change is “the biggest threat facing not just the country but the planet”) — and pointed out that many of those ideas, which he once touted alone, have now made it into the Democratic mainstream.

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That kind of credibility seems to appeal especially to young people, who see the senator’s long-running commitment to the same beliefs as reassuring, a kind of insurance against being tricked. Nearly one in three New Hampshire voters under 35 said they supported Sanders, according to the latest Suffolk/Globe poll.

“In the years he’s been in Congress and in the Senate and as mayor, which is longer than I’ve been alive,” he has always worked “for the people,” Keith Yergeau, 34, said after the Concord event.

Yergeau, who is currently unemployed, drives around town in a Mazda 3 fully wrapped in Bernie 2020 vinyl. He was an enthusiastic volunteer for Barack Obama back in the day, but after knocking doors and registering voters for the former president, he ended up feeling that Obama’s policies were too similar to those of George W. Bush — too friendly to Wall Street.

“President Obama, I worked very hard for you, and I tried to convince a great many people that you were different,” Yergeau said. “Looking back, I can see that I was hoodwinked.”

As a Sanders supporter, he now knows exactly what he’s getting.

“I have not found anyone who is currently running as worthy of my vote,” Yergeau said. “Except for Bernie.”

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Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.