It was the day before Halloween. Senator Bernie Sanders—the "charmingly charmless pugilistic socialist from Vermont," as Marin Cogan so wonderfully put it—had finished speaking at a senior center in Manchester, New Hampshire. I asked an older couple in attendance, Doris and Michael Manning, why they liked Sanders. Their answer was honest and personal.
"I was just prescribed a prescription," Doris said, "and I wouldn't get it because I couldn't afford it."
"Two hundred and what?" Michael asked.
"Two-hundred-sixty-five for a month," Doris said. "And I said no I can't afford it. And there's nothing else to substitute for it for what they wanted to give me. I said, Sorry, I'm not taking it." The Mannings had medical insurance, they told me, but their insurer, Humana, wouldn't cover the prescription.
Michael had had a similar experience with a shingles shot he needed. "For some reason it falls into the wrong category of drug," he told me. "It's a Class B or whatever. Because it's not covered, it's two-hundred-something dollars out of pocket. OK, I'm just gonna take my chance and hope I'm one of the two in three that don't get it."
The Mannings liked Sanders' pledge to reduce the cost of prescription drugs."You have those difficult choices to make," Michael said, "and that's why we tend to support people who tend to support us. It makes perfect sense."
As a political reporter, it's easy to get sucked into the horse race, the tit-for-that on Twitter, the latest super PAC filing, the newest poll. Conversations like the one I had with the Mannings are a reality check, a gut punch. There are lives and livelihoods at stake in any election, a presidential election especially. It's partly for that reason, I'd argue, why Bernie Sanders has done as well as he has. He's laid out lofty goals like tackling income inequality and breaking up big banks, but he's also campaigned on the quotidian: Prescription drug prices, cost-of-living increases, ATM fees.
Sanders enters Tuesday's New Hampshire primary on track for his first win of '16. Last fall, I traveled the country hoping to understand Sanders' appeal. I like to think my story, for Yahoo! News, sheds some light on why Sanders has surprised so many (including myself) this presidential race.
The Bernie Revolution: What’s so appealing about a grumpy 74-year-old?
Yahoo! News | December 3, 2015
IT'S A DRIZZLY Wednesday evening in October and the presidential campaign has descended on a college campus in suburban Virginia. The line of students begins way out in the parking lot, a procession of flannel and hoodies and trendy rain boots winding up the stairs and through the doors of the campus rec center, snaking down polished hallways until reaching the gymnasium. Attendees scribble their names and email addresses on pledge cards and drop them in a box on the way in. Young volunteers in campaign T-shirts corral the unwieldy masses, and the late arrivals plead for a seat inside.
We’ve seen this hundreds of times before: The gymnasium filled to the rafters, the handwritten banners and the phalanx of TV cameras, the klieg lights aimed at center stage, the rock music blaring as the candidate makes his or her entrance. But the setting of tonight’s rally, George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., isn’t some hotbed of ivory tower liberalism on fire for the latest Democratic rock star. If anything, George Mason is known as a bastion of libertarianism and a magnet for major donations by right-leaning luminaries such as the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. The headliner of tonight’s student town hall, the object of affection for all these college kids, isn’t quite whom you’d expect either: a rumpled, irascible democratic socialist from the state of Vermont named Bernie Sanders.
Take a look at him: Sen. Bernard Sanders, age 74, is not young, handsome or polished like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama were when they ran for president. He doesn’t care much for working rope lines or rah-rah chants. The closest thing he has to an official slogan is the legally required fine print on his website and campaign lit: “PAID FOR BY BERNIE 2016 (not the billionaires).”
His stump speeches steer clear of the typical campaign pabulum. No city-on-a-hill imagery. No spit-shined paeans to the “greatest country on earth.” Sanders prefers to rattle off one grim fact after another about the dire state of our union — 2.2 million people incarcerated; $1 trillion in student debt; the vast gap between top 1 percent and everyone else. His transitions — “Now, there’s another issue I want to discuss” — send Ted Sorensen spinning in his grave. If Obama campaigned in poetry, then Sanders employs the prose of a Union Square pamphleteer telling anyone who’ll listen all the reasons why our country is going to pot.
And the college kids — they love it. At George Mason, they pump their fists and leap out of their seats and scream “I love you, Bernie!” They love him because he doesn’t sugarcoat it, doesn’t coddle them. As he rattles off the bad news, many students boo but others cheer; some cheer and boo. It’s almost as if they can’t help but applaud a candidate who has the nerve to give it to them straight.
No matter the setting or the audience, Sanders’ fundamental message is the same: The political system is broken, corrupt. Passing this or that new policy won’t fix it. In the mold of populists past, Sanders wants to tear it all down and rebuild it anew.