It was a familiar scene at the State Theatre in Portland on Sunday, when independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders drew a sellout crowd for a rally supporting his second consecutive bid for the U.S. presidency.
The Vermont senator is accustomed to drawing big crowds in Maine, and he cruised to a dominating win in Maine’s Democratic caucuses three years ago. But the electoral landscape has changed. Sanders is competing with a large field of Democratic presidential hopefuls, and some of them have a adopted portions of his populist platform. That’s created a dilemma for some of his ardent supporters, who above all else, want to defeat President Donald Trump.
Sanders began his rally at the State Theatre the same way he has so many others here in Maine and other states.
Unlike other politicians, Sanders made no attempt to ingratiate himself with the crowd with trite comments about lobster or the rocky coastline. Instead, he launched directly into his hallmark us-against-them battle cry.
“We, together, to bring about real change are gonna have to take on Wall Street, the insurance companies, the drug companies … and the entire 1 percent,” Sanders said.
The crowd of more than 1,700 applauded as the 77-year-old Sanders gestured enthusiastically from the lectern, railing against the 1 percent, big banks, insurance companies and, of course, Trump.
“We have a president who is a racist, who is a sexist, who is a homophobe, who is xenophobe, who is a religious bigot. And among other things he’s also a pathological liar. And a phony,” he said.
The anti-Trump theme was also on full display less than two weeks ago, when another presidential candidate brought a similar-size crowd to its feet at the very same State Theatre.
“Can I look to you to ignore the show that this president has going on, pick up the remote and change the channel to something better?” Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg said as he closed out his rally.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is well behind Sanders in national polls, but his reception in Maine highlights the new landscape that Sanders is attempting to navigate — one that he himself arguably helped create.
Four years ago Sanders and his populist message drew huge crowds, including over 7,000 people at a rally at the Cross Insurance Center in Portland. He emerged as the avatar for democratic socialism, an ideology embracing universal health care, racial justice, combating climate change and free college tuition.
Sanders has also arguably changed the way some Democratic candidates campaign — an emphasis on small-dollar donations and finding time for rallies in small electoral vote states like Maine, where he won nearly 65 percent of the vote among Democratic caucus voters in 2016, eclipsing the eventual party nominee Hillary Clinton.
“We have in Sen. Bernie Sanders somebody who has been time-tested, battle-tested and on a justice journey for all of his life. And he is absolutely the best person to be president of the United States of America for this time,” said Nina Turner, co-chairwoman of Sanders’ national campaign, addressing a crowd of more than 100 people during an activist rally at Mechanics Hall in Portland just a few hours before the Buttigieg rally. “He speaks up and he speaks out. And he’s willing to put some sweat equity on this thing.”
Turner had been dispatched to energize the Sanders activists. She paced among them, extolling Sanders’ virtues and commitment to what she describes as a political revolution, reminding the crowd that, while there are other good candidates in the Democratic primary field, only one has shared their values from the beginning.
“The difference between them and Sen. Sanders is his consistency and his conviction,” she said. “He stays on message whether it’s popular in the moment or not.”
John Wibby, a Sanders supporter from South Portland, didn’t seem to need a lot of convincing.
“I’ve been with him the whole time and I’m going to be with him the whole time this time as well,” he said.
Wibby’s T-shirt, emblazoned with the likeness of Sanders acolyte U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, plays off the logo of a famous rock band — it reads AOC-DC.
As for the other Democratic candidates, Wibby said he’s not sold.
“Where he’s been consistent his entire life, they’ve just now adopted his platform. So it doesn’t seem as genuine to me,” he said.
Fellow Bernie supporter Kenneth Bailey of Portland said Sanders has tapped the progressive disenchantment with the big money that he said is controlling the Democratic party, and paraphrases songwriter Bob Dylan to describe the other candidates’ collective epiphany.
“You notice something happening, but you don’t know what that is. And that’s where many of these politicians are. They feel the rumble, but they’re clueless,” he said.
Bailey also said he believes the bitter 2016 primary fight prompted some disenchanted Sanders supporters to sit out the general election, believing, as he put it, voters would never put “a lunatic like Trump in the White House.”
He and Portland’s Emily Qualey, who said she voted for Sanders in 2016, believe that preventing a second Trump term is the priority.
Qualey hopes that the Democratic primary contest doesn’t become a zero-sum game.
“We’ve really got to keep our eye on the real issues at hand and not let our egos get too wrapped up with what we believe is the right way to do something,” she said. “Is it really worth burning everything down and causing a lot of harm to a lot of people? Or are we going to take an inch where we can take an inch?”
For some Sanders supporters, it’s no longer “Bernie or bust,” and the revolution just might have to wait. But Turner has a message for Democratic voters looking elsewhere in the primary field.
“There’s only one original. There are many copies. And why would you take the copies when you can have the real thing?” she said.