Manchester, N.H. — The news that Bernie Sanders had won the New Hampshire primary spread slowly, circulating around the packed gym at South New Hampshire University as reporters and Sanders supporters hunched over their phones, nudging their neighbors as one, then two, then three networks called the race for the 78-year-old socialist from Vermont. Shoulders unclenched. Supporters breathed out. Relief came first, then joy and pandemonium, as the news hit the CNN feed on the 20-foot jumbotron in the back of the gym and the entire room realized that it was finally time, they had finally done it.
On the live feed, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was midway through his not-quite-victory-this-time speech, which the crowd at SNHU had absolutely no interest in hearing. For a few moments, the only sound in the room was a name, two syllables, yelled in unison by hundreds of people. “BER-NIE, BER-NIE, BER-NIE.”
“Tonight feels like what it should have felt like a week ago,” Alonzo Solorzano, a 24-year-old retail worker from Cambridge, Massachusetts, said. “There were a lot of concerns and echoes of 2016 coming from Iowa.”
For a moment, at least, those concerns evaporated in New Hampshire. Sanders took the stage to a standing, stamping, shouting ovation that lasted long enough that he had to do his signature grin and hand-flap multiple times before the crowd would shut up and let him speak. When he did, it was short and clear.
“Let me say tonight, that this victory here is the beginning of the end for Donald Trump,” Sanders said, and the room exploded again, this time with a new chant: “Bernie beats Trump! Bernie beats Trump!”
The chant, in the past few days, has become a rallying cry for Sanders’ campaign. It’s on bumper stickers, buttons, hoodies, T-shirts, flags, activists’ Twitter display names, and at least one light-up, taxi-style roof ornament stuck to a vehicle cruising around New Hampshire. The Sanders campaign in recent days has largely stopped running a primary campaign, and instead decided to run a national one — focusing almost entirely on beating Donald Trump.
Most of Sanders’ competitors have leaned into this angle at one point or another in the endless doldrum proving grounds before Iowa, but for Sanders it seems to have stuck. The previous night, Sanders crammed 7,500 supporters into the hockey arena at the University of New Hampshire for a rally featuring a full set by the Strokes, which was hastily rebranded from a “Get Out the Vote” rally to a “Bernie Beats Trump” rally, as the slogan caught on. By the end of the night, it was easy to see why, as UNH’s dried-out hockey rink could barely contain the energy inside.
As the crowd filled out the arena, a frenetic, sometimes furious Cornell West ratcheted up the energy levels, teeing up New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. AOC, who has the makings of a generational orator, with less than one term in national politics, ripped through her own version of the post-Sanders progressive stump speech, and delivered a hell-raising introduction for Sanders himself, spinning a reference to Trump’s “go back” to other countries comments into a rhetorical jackhammer of “forward, forward, forward.” And in a speech that lasted well more than half an hour, Sanders laid out his vision for the country, a performance that by now should be familiar in substance, style, and sheer results.
In the front rows of UNH’s audience, jubilant bros in cheap plastic wayfarers went quiet as the 78-year-old senator made his pitch for universal health care, hardly mentioning his competitors for the nomination and focusing all of his ire on the president. Several women fought back tears as he pledged to keep the government out of women’s reproductive decisions. And all of this was before the Strokes played, announced a new album, and almost got kicked offstage by campus police. Afterward, the party spilled out onto the snowy soccer field outside, where students slipped and slid, lit up joints, and kicked the words “BERNIE ‘20” into the thick blanket of ice across the turf.
This enthusiasm appears to have transitioned to the ballot box. On Tuesday, outside the David R. Cawley Middle School polling station in Hookset, Smriti Gurung, 17, rattled off the major points of Sanders’ climate plan and student-debt relief policy. Her mother, Mina, grinned. Smriti was too young to vote in the primary, but Mina said she had just cast a vote for Sanders because her daughter “said he was good.” CNN’s exit polls suggest that Sanders won more under-30 voters in New Hampshire than the rest of the field combined. He won Durham, where UNH is located, by nine points.
Sanders’ final margin of victory was slim — only about a point and a half. But unlike the chaotically undemocratic Iowa caucus results, New Hampshire’s straight primary is unassailable. The Sanders campaign says they’re two for two, counting Iowa as a win, but even those who dispute this have to recognize that Sanders is the party’s clear front-runner for the nomination. This fact was clear on the ground in Manchester, making it all the more surreal when live coverage from several major networks focused more on Buttigieg’s strong second place, ignoring the fact that his polling is still dismal in the upcoming Nevada and South Carolina races. Amy Klobuchar’s surprising third-place run got huge billing by many pundits, despite the fact that she has a well-documented history of abusing her staff and few political distinctions from Joe Biden or Buttigieg. Iowa and New Hampshire are the most important races in the primary, the thinking seems to be, unless, of course, the socialist wins them.
“I think it galvanizes them,” U.S. representative and Bernie surrogate Ro Khanna said about the imprecise media coverage. “All the arguments that are made against Bernie … make his supporters double down.”
They’ll take that attitude to Nevada, and then to South Carolina, where the race could shift all over again as Biden attempts to make a last stand in his strongest early state. Sanders holds a five-point lead in Nevada, where a win could propel him toward a stronger finish in South Carolina. Biden is still 10 points up there, and Sanders supporters say they’re not banking on an upset, but a competitive second place could keep them going into the first Super Tuesday, where almost every state is within their grasp.
The chant “Bernie beats Trump” then starts to make a little more sense. For supporters, it’s a promise for both the general election and the primaries. It’s an insistence that Sanders get his due as the party’s front-runner and standard bearer. And for the next few months, it will be a constant affirmation that Sanders’ “multicultural, multiracial, multigenerational” coalition holds power over the Democratic Party whether its traditional establishment likes it or not.
Sanders supporters believe that he will beat Trump. With a few more wins like New Hampshire, who’s to say they’re wrong?