Manchester, New Hampshire—“There is no secret formula to winning in New Hampshire,” says Julia Barnes. “Volunteers recruited plus tactics equals the win number.” A native of Hollis, a town about 25 miles south of here, Barnes is the state director for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. By “tactics,” she means boots on the ground: the slow, unglamorous, persistent work of contacting likely primary voters and identifying Sanders supporters—and then making sure all of them actually vote.
By “volunteers,” she means people like Elizabeth Ropp. “I watched Bernie filibuster against tax cuts for the wealthy, and I really hoped that someday he’d run for president,” Ropp tells me. A community acupuncturist in Manchester—“We provide affordable acupuncture on a sliding-fee scale”—Ropp, with her husband, hosted the first Sanders house party in the state earlier this year. “I live in a small bungalow, and our living room, dining room, and kitchen were crammed,” she says. “We had about 130 people, and some of them had to stand outside.”
Or Janice Kelble, a post-office employee for 29 years who now works for the New Hampshire Postal Workers union. Last month, when it became the first union in the state to endorse Sanders, Kelble almost missed the announcement. “My husband has pretty advanced Parkinson’s disease,” she says, “and I didn’t think he could sit through the whole event. So I had to run home and then hurry back to Manchester. It’s kind of hard to juggle, but Bernie has been there for us, and I really wanted to be there for him.”
Or Bob Friedlander, a doctor who practiced clinical oncology for 27 years before switching to palliative medicine. Back in 2003, Friedlander founded Doctors for Dean in support of his fellow physician’s short-lived campaign for the presidency. This August, he heard Sanders in person for the first time, at a Friends of the Earth meeting in Concord. “Afterwards I thought, ‘I really want to work for him,’” Friedlander says. “In a way, this feels like an extension of my work in palliative care. That was about seeing the patient as a whole person and helping them to vocalize what mattered most to them. Here, too, we’re focusing on what really matters.”
Presidential campaigns are like icebergs. There’s the part you see: the candidate, making speeches or appearing on television, and the supporters, cheering at rallies, wearing buttons, knocking on doors. Then there’s the much larger part you can’t see: the tables at campaign headquarters piled high with leaflets and lawn signs, the paid staff—and the army of volunteers with clipboards working phone banks, keeping track of voter preferences, and making sure “leaners” and undecideds get plenty of follow-up.
New Hampshire’s primary is currently scheduled for February 9, 2016. Bernie Sanders has no path to the White House that doesn’t begin with a win here. In May, he trailed Hillary Clinton among likely voters in the state by 38 points. At the beginning of the summer, he was still 10 points behind. The latest poll puts Sanders ahead of Clinton 42 percent to 28 percent— a margin traditionally described as a “comfortable lead.” In another sign of his surge, in late September, a Sanders rally at the University of New Hampshire drew over 3,000 supporters; a Clinton event two days earlier at the same place attracted just 600.
How did Sanders pull ahead? His supporters in New Hampshire were happy to talk about what motivated them. But the more I heard, the more I realized that the Sanders campaign really was different—and not just because it had less money. As anyone who has ever watched The War Room can tell you, maintaining message discipline is crucial to a winning campaign. (Remember “It’s the economy, stupid”?) Which in turn means a tight, top-down command structure to keep everyone “on message.”
The Sanders campaign is nothing like that. Look below the waterline and instead of a single streamlined operation, you find twin hulls. One is a professionally run, locally focused effort where the candidate’s position on the Northern Pass (a controversial plan to build a high-voltage power line through the state) is as important as his views on immigration and taxes. The other is a parallel structure, a volunteer-based reservoir of energy, talent, and enthusiasm that propelled a senator from a tiny state into a national figure. I’ve come to think of this operation as the Sanders second shift.
* * *
Aidan King graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2014. But I met him back home in Montpelier, Vermont, a two-hour drive up I-89. Well over six feet tall, with a boyish face framed by blond fuzz, King is the digital-marketing coordinator for a local winemaker—which, as it’s harvest season, also means he picks his share of grapes. Since December 2013, when he founded Grassroots for Sanders with David Frederick (“a stranger I met on the Internet who lives in San Jose”), King has spent most of his nights “glued to my computer…. Sometimes my girlfriend says, ‘Dude, you’re on the computer too much!’, and I take a break.”
King, who turns 24 this month, is the group’s senior digital organizer. Among other things, he runs the San- ders for President forum on Reddit, the massively popular news and social-networking website. King’s subreddit— a place for the online discussion of all things Bernie—has amassed over 113,000 subscribers to date. If that sounds inconsequential, you probably weren’t paying attention on April 30, when Sanders used Reddit to announce his candidacy. Or to the AMA—“Ask Me Anything”—he did on the site in May. Or to the news on October 1, when the Sanders campaign announced it had raised a whopping $26 million, largely from small donors online. That put the Vermont socialist within touching distance of Clinton’s $28 million for the quarter.
In an age when social media have been credited—or blamed—for everything from the Arab Spring to the decline of Western civilization, it’s important to be clear: Facebook “likes” won’t get anyone elected. But social media’s low entry costs have allowed what, at least at this point, remains a decentralized, volunteer-driven guerrilla campaign to challenge the Clinton machine. “You need a lot of people doing stuff for free,” says King, whose earliest political memory is of “when my mom took me to Washington to protest against the Iraq War.”
“I was so excited about Obama. And I still think he’s done amazing things. But I wanted more follow-through,” says King, listing “drone strikes, kill lists, NSA spying on Americans, the expansion of Bush-administration policies, a failed drug war, failed foreign policy,” and the increasing influence of money in politics as his main concerns. “I put a lot of stake in authenticity,” he says. “And I’ve been exposed to Bernie’s politics and his honesty since I was in diapers.”
Hillary Clinton, adds King, “is obviously a smart and powerful woman. I consider myself a liberal, and would of course prefer her to Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush. But I get $20 haircuts, and I don’t feel represented by someone who was on the board of Wal-Mart. If we can do better—and I think we can—why not try for it?”
Although he’s in regular contact with Kenneth Pennington, the Sanders campaign’s digital director, King and his fellow volunteers “don’t take orders. They don’t dictate the content, although if they want to promote an event or a particular issue, they’ll ask. We’re here to help, not to compete,” he says.
* * *
Daniela Perdomo’s relationship with the Sanders campaign is even more detached. “I’ve never even been to Vermont,” she laughs. The US-born daughter of an Israeli mother and a Guatemalan father, Perdomo spent most of her childhood in Brazil, returning to the United States for college, where she volunteered as a community organizer. After a stint as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times—“because I spoke Spanish, they put me on what I call the ‘structural inequality’ beat. Basically, I was writing about brown people”—she took a series of tech jobs on the West Coast and wrote for Alternet. Then the recession hit.
Following the job market back to New York, Perdomo worked for a couple of start-ups before founding her own company, goTenna, which lets mobile-phone users send texts and share location data even in areas with no phone service. Her personal trajectory may be unusual, but the political impulse that spurred Perdomo to also work a second unpaid shift is beginning to sound familiar.
“I first came across Bernie Sanders during the Obama- care debate, when it seemed like there was a real chance for universal healthcare. I was on board with Obama from the first day, but when he took the public option off the table, I was pretty disappointed,” she says.
“When Sanders first talked about running, I thought, ‘He can’t win.’ I donated, because that’s how democracy should work: You should put your money behind a candidate who represents your views. I still couldn’t convince any of my friends.”
Until she found her way to the Sanders subreddit. “Suddenly, I heard conversations no one in my office was talking about,” she says. But when she tried to research Sanders’s record, “all I found were dismissive news stories. So I decided to build a website optimized for search and social media.” Before she knew it, Perdomo had 125 volunteers, and in 32 days had made FeeltheBern.org. “This is support you cannot buy. It can only be free,” Perdomo says. Since its launch on August 12, the website has garnered over 2 million views.
What does the Sanders campaign make of her effort? “I wasn’t even in touch with them until we launched,” Perdomo says. “They trust what we’re doing.” Sanders’s headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, “may be the sun, but there are a lot of planets. And here’s why it’s so easy to coordinate: because we don’t have to.
“Getting out the vote, meeting people face-to-face—those are still crucial,” Perdomo says. “But it’s so exciting seeing what can be done with the new tools available.”
Another example of the new tool kit is the Bernie Post, a news website devoted to covering the campaign. Unlike the Reddit page, its look is slick and fairly traditional. Launched in August, the Bernie Post attracted 40,000 readers in its first three weeks. When I contacted editor Torin Peel to request an interview, he told me he lives in Geelong, Australia—and that he’s still in high school.
“I’m really interested in political campaigns because I’m a strong believer in grassroots politics. I want to make sure that everyone’s treated equally, that the planet is looked after,” he tells me via Twitter. “I don’t like being 16. It’s something I don’t tout around, because it draws interest right away. Also, I don’t think it’s all that unusual anymore for people my age to be getting involved with stuff like this. Perhaps in previous election cycles, but I’ve seen so many young people fired up by this campaign.”
* * *
Back in New Hampshire, Julia Barnes says that with eight offices spread out across the state, the Sanders campaign is still “in the middle of Act I. We’ve got our stage sets, and we know who our actors are.”
So what happens next? “A ton of voter contact,” she says. “Folks sit down with you and talk about their issues. Healthcare. Student loans. Campaign finance. The environment. And you have to reach out to all kinds of groups. Issue groups. Neighborhood associations. Knitting circles. Plus there’s a fundamental independent streak that runs through this state, which also keeps things interesting.”
“Politics is our state sport,” Burt Cohen tells me. He should know. A former majority leader of the New Hampshire Senate, Cohen hosts Keeping Democracy Alive, a political radio program and podcast. As the plaque on the grounds of the state capitol in Concord proudly proclaims: “Taking their responsibility seriously, New Hampshire voters test contenders during the months leading to the primary.” Or as Cohen puts it, “People here expect to meet every candidate personally—several times.”
But it isn’t a popularity contest. “Bernie’s a little gruff,” says Elizabeth Ropp. He’s “not your typical baby-kissing candidate,” says Janice Kelble. And although Barnes says that Sanders has been “doing fundraisers” for Democrats across the state, his long history of running outside the party is hurting him—not just in Vermont, where both Governor Peter Shumlin and Senator Patrick Leahy have endorsed Clinton, but in New Hampshire as well. “A lot of rank-and-file Democrats feel the tide’s going our way,” says Tim Horrigan, a four-term state representative from Durham who’s still undecided. “Bernie only joined the party a few months ago. And we need someone who can win the general election.”
While Sanders’s record may not win over the “grasstops”—local elected officials like Horrigan, who traditionally wield a lot of influence in New Hampshire—the grassroots feel they know where he stands. “Other candidates change from one week to the next,” says Bob Friedlander. “Bernie doesn’t change from one decade to the next.”
“I can’t recall us endorsing a primary candidate before,” says Kelble of the New Hampshire Postal Workers. “Usually I wait until the national AFL-CIO make their endorsements, and then work on the Labor Program [the AFL-CIO’s national member-to-member outreach].”
So what makes this year different? “Bernie—he’s a fighter. When the CWA and IBEW went on strike against FairPoint, he was on the picket line. He held a town meeting back in 2011 on the importance of maintaining a public postal service. He’s fought for family medical leave and against unfair scheduling practices in the workplace.” To Kelble, those are not abstract issues. “I was a single parent for many years,” she says. “But I almost had to quit the only job that gave me a path to a middle-class life. If you can’t get someone to take care of your kid, what do you do? And I had a union job.”
* * *
In an interview with Buzzfeed, Pennington said the Sanders campaign differs from past grassroots digital efforts in that it relies on volunteers for a lot of the basic work of building a field operation. So far, the Sanders second shift has been the campaign’s secret weapon.
“In a normal campaign, you spend an enormous amount of effort signing up volunteers,” says Barnes. “We don’t have to waste time doing that here. Our folks are engaged and ready to go—to the point where we’re dragging behind them! We need to turn all those people who go to rallies into workers.”
If the tag team of conventional ground game and roll-your-own web effort carries Sanders to victory in New Hampshire and Iowa, both teams will deserve the credit. But as the battleground shifts from small states, where the premium is on intensity and commitment, to larger states, where organization becomes more important, the contrast between the senator’s ad hoc insurgency and the disciplined professionals in Clinton’s corner may not remain so favorable. On the other hand, Sanders’s recent fundraising success has allowed the campaign to draw up plans to expand into Virginia and other Super Tuesday states.
Hillary Clinton may still stop Sanders, but she can no longer afford to dismiss him—or alienate his supporters. “Don’t you get that this is the base?” says Ropp. “Personally, I have a lot of time for Hillary,” says Friedlander, “and if she wins, I’ll do whatever I can to help.” Provided, that is, she wins in a fair fight. Limiting the Democrats to just six debates, with the New Hampshire event scheduled “between Hanukkah and Christmas, it looks like [Democratic National Committee chair] Debbie Wasserman Shultz has her thumb on the scale,” says Burt Cohen.
Even if it never gets beyond Iowa, the Sanders campaign has already revealed a yearning for change—and an enthusiasm for radical solutions—that even six months ago seemed beyond imagination. The 2016 election was supposed to be a snoozefest enlived only by the dynastic battle between the houses of Bush and Clinton. Instead, Donald Trump has taken the Republicans on their wildest ride since 1964, while the populist fervor of Sanders and his supporters prompts comparisons with George McGovern, or even Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign.
We know how those stories ended. When I meet with a Nation reading group in Hanover, there is little support for Clinton, even though the membership is 80 percent women. However, along with enthusiasm for Sanders’s program and amazement at how far he’s come, there is also dread at what another electoral defeat would mean. “I worry about leaving young people with a sense of futility,” says Susan McGrew.
That, too, feels familiar—and hard to shake off, as is the fear that the primaries take place inside a kind of left bubble, doomed to burst on contact with the electorate. But what if 2016 really is one of those years where history turns? Though Syriza’s shaky survival in Greece may not be grounds for celebration, take in the rise of Podemos in Spain and veteran radical Jeremy Corbyn’s pundit-defying victory in the British Labour Party, and it begins to seem like something is happening here, even if we don’t know what it is.
Maybe those of us who keep wondering if the energy and hope inspired by the Sanders campaign can survive defeat have been asking the wrong question. Maybe we should start considering whether they can survive success. “What are you going to do?” Elizabeth Ropp counters when I put the question to her. “Stay home because you’re afraid of heartbreak?”