Big banks! Fifteen bucks an hour! Medicare for all! And, from a fan in Cedar Rapids: “Jane!” anticipating Mr. Sanders’s stump-speech salute to his wife of 27 years, a loving mention that draws a collective “aw.”
Mr. Sanders’s call for revolution against a political and financial system rigged against the middle class is what’s powered him to a dead heat with Hillary Clinton. As he pledges to battle the establishment, he’s also hoping to buck a hard reality: Americans aged 18 to 24 are the most unreliable voters in the electorate, with participation that’s fallen from 51 percent in 1964, to 38 percent in 2012. Even in 2008, Barack Obama’s historic candidacy brought only 44 percent of this group to the polls.
Mr. Sanders’s appeal to young people earned him imitation by his Democratic rivals, as well as the criticism that he is a one-note candidate short on workable solutions. For his young fans, the unchanging nature of his pitch has deepened their connection to him. His rallies feel like a combination revival meeting and rock musical festival, down to the funky vendors hawking rainbow-hued “Feel the Bern” merchandise.
Sunday at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center in Waterloo, Krissy Haglund, a doctor whose student debt tops $3,800 a month, had road-tripped from Minneapolis with her two young children to join in the movement. While Mr. Sanders spoke, Ms. Haglund made a handmade sign reading “Student Loan Reform” on a pizza box, then jumped up and down waving it until Mr. Sanders noticed. “Yes, the young lady there, we’ll get to that in a minute.”
Alongside Dr. Haglund, young people in college sweatshirts, a man with lots of piercings and a Sanders cap, a woman with a baby in a cloth sling, and a middle-aged couple called out “zero!” when he asked what the financing rate on an education should be. Many hands go up when Mr. Sanders asks who has student loans. When he ticks off the sins of big banks, the crowd boos. On Saturday night in Cedar Rapids, as he introduced another “international embarrassment” that must be stopped, somebody shouted “Trump!” and the place went crazy. Even when he expounds on something as potentially boring as offshore tax havens, people listen, which surprises him.
In a new Quinnipiac poll released Monday, Mr. Sanders was favored by a whopping 74 percent among 18 to 44 year-olds, compared with 23 percent for Hillary Clinton.
Mrs. Clinton’s speeches have gotten hotter, but she doesn’t receive that level of interaction in her rallies here. She speaks from a stage that’s elevated from the crowd, flanked by Secret Service agents, her staff and barricades so dense that when an elderly woman felt faint during a Cedar Rapids rally on Saturday, it took three men 15 minutes to remove the security fences for her to exit. Mrs. Clinton’s rally Sunday in Des Moines was ebullient, as friends hugged one another and swayed to piped-in Katy Perry. The crowd was older and more female, and while they might be less hip and more staid, they are among the nation’s most dependable primary voters.
The enthusiasm for “revolution” that greets Mr. Sanders, the Democratic Socialist from Vermont feels similar in some ways to that for Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman who polled about 6 percent in the 2008 Republican primaries. Mr. Sanders hopes that his emotional appeal to the economic pain felt by the young will propel them to participate at the rates they did in 2008, or higher. When turnout is low, he warns them, “Republicans win.” His fans are true believers, but whether their faith translates into action is the big question mark hanging over every packed, whooping rally.