As much as Sanders supporters like to tout that the 26-year member of Congress is “not a politician”, Sanders and his team are quite astute at adapting to his audience. From the pump-up speeches, to the closing song, Sanders has designed his rallies to account for the psychology of his supporters, and his campaign’s key objectives.
On the eve of the Illinois primary Sanders held a rally at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago, and this precise planning was on full display.
Down by three points in the latest polling against Clinton in Illinois, the Sanders camp was well aware that they would need a surprisingly strong showing from minorities to win in the predominantly non-white urban center of Chicago.
When I arrived in the ornate, gold-trimmed theater, a crowd of 3,985 supporters was already waiting for the evening to begin. I did a survey of the crowd around me, and found unsurprisingly that the crowd was predominantly young and white – the Bernie base – but the Sanders campaign tried to tell a different story.
The hand-picked audience behind Senator Sanders was largely African American and Latino, with pro-Sanders groups such as the Nursing Union well-represented. The average age on the stage was probably near a decade higher than the average age of the rest of audience.
To Sander’s left sat the flag of Illinois. To his right sat the American flag. Nowhere to be found in the auditorium was the Chicago city flag, synonymous with the “corrupt” Chicago Police Department, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The rally opened with musical performances, followed by speeches from several activists including an NAACP leader, and former Hispanic mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Several speakers took the opportunity to bash Democratic Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who has endorsed Hillary Clinton, for poorly handling public safety, education, and race relations as mayor. From the outset, it was clear who this rally was targeting.
The opening speeches were followed by a half hour of carefully selected music, starting with revolutionary tunes including “Uprising” by Muse, and “I’m Talking About a Revolution” by Tracy Chapman. These songs set the tone for the evening, reminding listeners of the long-time politician’s “Outsider” campaign, and his “political revolution”. As the Senator sped to the theater, the music transitioned towards more jolly tunes, from African American artists including “The Supremes” and “The Temptations”. The crowd danced, and attempted “the wave”, as they waited.
Then came Sanders, delivering his fiery rhetoric hunched over the podium. Sanders’s speech was just as carefully designed as all of the preceding elements of the rally. Sanders opened by attacking Emmanuel for his tenure in Chicago, demanding “We have got to come together and end this ridiculous violence”.
Sanders followed that up by powering through urban issues, from the bankrupt Chicago schools, to the “poisoned” water of Flint Michigan. For the first few minutes of Sanders’ speech, the most common words out of his mouth were “we” and “our”. Sanders was in Chicago to prove that he stood with the Chicago African American community, and he made that clear. Eventually, with the strange transition “We are not going to be shutting down schools while Wall Street makes huge profit”, Sanders moved into the core of his platform, the segment that so excites his base – income inequality.
In discussing inequality, Sanders took on a more demanding tone. He made frequent use of the phrase “we need” when discussing healthcare, the minimum wage, and job creation.
He alternated between issues relevant to the room, and issues relevant to the African American community. At one point, he discussed his plan to make public college “free”, and the room exploded in applause. As hundreds of people stomp the theater floor, the room literally shakes.
The most impressive element of Sanders’s rhetorical style is his ability to toe the line, to support one minority group, without isolating the majority. In a way, Sanders’s speeches resemble so-called “Barnum” statements, statements which have something for everyone to agree with. He stands with the African American community “and their white allies”. He stands with the Gay community “and their straight allies”. He stands with women “and their male allies”. Sanders knows how to make a forceful statement as minimally offensive as any Democratic politician I know.
Sanders has frequently critiqued the policies of President Obama throughout his campaign, but to this audience, only kind words are spoken for the former Senator from Illinois. Sanders knows that critiquing a senator that was both massively popular among Democrats in Illinois, and the minority community, would be a bad headline, even a death sentence in the Illinois primary.
Eventually, having enthralled the crowd with his vision for the nation, Bernie went on the attack. He altered his style, going from “we” to “I” and “her”. He spent 10 minutes attacking Hillary Clinton for her speeches to Wall Street firms, and her super-PAC. After each mention of Secretary Clinton’s name, like clockwork, Sanders supporters let out a collective “boo”. He transitions directly from attacking Clinton to attacking Wall Street and corporate America, implicitly recognizing the ties between the two.
Finally, Sanders transitions back to the “we” tense, as he went after Republican candidates, mostly Donald Trump. Sanders phrases it as an “us-versus-them” situation. He simplified conservative social stances, and used them as an example of the threat his base faces under a Republican president.
Then, Sanders moved into why he’s going to win: “Love trumps hatred”. And with that lasting phrase, Sanders thanks the audience, reminds them to turn out to vote tomorrow, and walks off to David Bowie’s “Starman”.
And his supporters stood to applaud their anti-establishment, 10-term legislator. The man is a political savant, if nothing else.
* Michael Sitver is a writer and the founder of Morning Short.