Fired up by Cornel West, Sanders's young volunteers fan out for a last primary push across New Hampshire

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

HUDSON, N.H. — On the morning of primary day, Cornel West came to fire up the Bernie Sanders troops, and then sent them out into the rain.

A bus carrying 50 or so volunteers from Boston and New York arrived a little bit after 8 a.m. at a strip mall in this southern New Hampshire town near the Massachusetts state line. They entered a storefront space that’s now serving as a headquarters for Sanders volunteers, prepared to knock on doors to get voters out to support Sanders, the Vermont senator who won this state’s primary in 2016.

West, a public intellectual and philosophy professor at Harvard, entered the room moments later and launched into a 10-minute pep talk that mixed encouragement to his audience of door-knockers with criticism of Sanders’s rivals that pulled no punches.

“You are emptying yourself,” Sanders told the crowd of mostly younger people. “You are sacrificing yourself for something bigger than you. What is distinctive about my dear brother Bernie Sanders’s campaign: It’s not just any ordinary, garden-variety campaign. It is a movement. It has a moral and a spiritual dimension to it.

Harvard professor Cornel West at a campaign rally for Bernie Sanders at the University of New Hampshire on Monday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

“Now of course people want to say, ‘Democratic socialist, democratic socialist, oh, my God!’” West said, mocking the criticisms of Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist. But West ticked off a list of people who he said were also democratic socialists: Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Walt Whitman, Helen Keller and Katharine Lee Bates, the author of “America the Beautiful.”

Sanders’s political philosophy, West argued, is “as American as apple pie.”

West said Sanders’s critics will say he is “some kind of communist tied to Cuba and the Soviet Union and so forth.” 

“You say, ‘Are you kidding? Get off the crack pipe. Quit lying about Brother Bernie Sanders,’” West said. “He wants to deal with the materialism in the spiritual breakdown that’s taking place with … people obsessed with commodities and objects rather than the quality of relations, and that’s something you don’t get in most politicians.”

West’s oratory held the audience in rapt attention. But when he left to race off to another volunteer location, a Sanders organizer came to the front of the room and got down to business, walking the volunteers through their plan for the day.

Sanders is driven by a grassroots army of volunteers and small-dollar donors. His New Hampshire operation includes 150 paid staff on the ground, 17 separate offices and 14,000 volunteers.

The Sanders organizer, who gave his name only as Mike, discussed how to approach a voter who is ranked by the campaign’s data as a “1,” meaning they are “going to vote for Bernie no matter what.” The volunteers would see this ranking in the mobile app called MiniVAN, which some campaigns, including Sanders’s, are using for canvassing.

Bernie Sanders’s volunteers use the MiniVAN app to map and record voter contacts along their routes. (Michael Forster Rothbart/ZUMA Wire)

“Study after study has shown that the more specific you can get people to make a plan, the more likely they are to do this,” Mike said. He talked them through how to guide voters toward making a plan: “What’s your plan to vote? Are you going to go after work? Are you going to go on your lunch break? Are you going to drive? Do you know your polling location? … The best thing they can do is be specific about when and where they’re going to vote and how they’re getting there.”

Mike moved on to how to approach “voters 2 through 4, meaning they’re kind of undecided, maybe they’re leaning Bernie, maybe they’re leaning someone else.”

“That’s a great invitation for a conversation. I encourage all of you to think about the moment or the issue that got you off your couch and got you here,” Mike said. “Personal connection, personal stories, human-to-human interaction is what’s going to win this as well.”

Mike encouraged the volunteers to move on quickly if it became clear that a voter was a “5,” someone who had no intention of voting for Sanders. “We have too many doors to knock. We have too many voters to reach to waste our time arguing. There’s plenty of time for that between now and November,” he said.

The only moment when the well-oiled Sanders operation appeared to have a gap in its preparation came when a volunteer asked about the part of the door script that called for asking voters if they needed a ride to the polls.

“Encourage them to call the hotline,” Mike said. “I am not sure how fast we are going to be able to process those responses just because today is Election Day.”

“We can’t promise that?” the volunteer asked.

“I would say call the hotline and see if you can work something out. Logistics are really hard, and I’m not the person in charge, so I can’t personally guarantee anything, and I don’t want to put you guys in a spot where you are personally guaranteeing things,” Mike said.

On the wall, a series of inspirational quotes were scribbled on a whiteboard above the desk of Rich Lyons, the Sanders super-volunteer who was running this particular office. One of the quotes was from Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it happens.”

That quote is an apt description of the Sanders campaign. Not many people thought he had any chance in 2016. Even now, many Democrats think that even if he somehow manages to win the Democratic nomination, there’s no way he can beat President Trump.

Lyons’s enthusiasm for Sanders was impervious to doubt. He stood at the door as volunteers filed in and out, and his voice boomed out above the controlled chaos: “It’s a great day for a political revolution, everybody,” he called out.

Bernie Sanders at a campaign meeting in Dover, N.H., on Monday. (Jerker Ivarsson/Aftonbladet/ ZUMA Wire)

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