Not even “the math” can spoil a Bernie Sanders rally. The democratic-socialist senator from Vermont has outperformed any rational expectation, building an insurgent campaign that has captured 20 states, propelled by more than $210 million in grassroots contributions, averaging under $30 a pop. But with each passing state election – including the ones he’s winning by less-than-blowout margins – Sanders’ long shot grows longer.
At a mid-May Sanders rally in Salem, Oregon, there’s not a hint of gloom among the overflow crowd of 4,000 packing the National Guard Armory auditorium to roar for its champion. The vibe in Salem, Oregon’s capital city, is Phish-show-meets-Portlandia. Fans wear FEEL THE BERN shirts emblazoned with the Grateful Dead’s lightning-bolt logo – tweaked to give the skull Sanders’ untamed hair and glasses.
Party atmosphere aside, there’s a serious undercurrent to this evening’s rally. Jesse Botkin, a former Army specialist who served one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, is searching for a job and working on a computer-science degree on the side. He backs Sanders, he says, because he feels invisible to the political class: “Economically, nobody’s really taking into consideration the actual fucking people.” Botkin knows Sanders is promising too much; his agenda – for socialized health care and tuition-free college, among other lofty goals – is “not realistic.” But for Sanders’ backers, the candidate’s ambition is a feature, not a bug.
Even at this late date, with the threat of a Donald Trump presidency looming, Sanders pulls no punches against Hillary Clinton. His stump speech links her to a “rigged economy” – highlighting “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in contributions to the Clinton campaign by a member of the Walton family, whose Wal-Mart fortune, Sanders says, is richer than the combined wealth of the “bottom 40 percent” of the American people. Transforming jeers into cheers, Sanders demands of the billionaire clan, “Instead of making large campaign contributions to Secretary Clinton, pay your workers a living wage!”
Offstage, out of the spotlight, there’s little glamour to a grassroots presidential campaign. Late in the evening following the Salem rally, Rolling Stone met up with Sanders at his hotel – a no-frills La Quinta behind a Costco near the municipal airport, where rooms start at $89 a night. Pulling up a chair near the make-your-own-waffle station of the hotel’s breakfast bar, Sanders is dressed in a rumpled blue dress shirt and gray slacks. The senator is plainly worn down from the grind of the day: At times during the interview he seems to rest his chin against his chest, as he peers intently over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses.
His body may be out of gas, but Sanders’ mind is fiery and cantankerous. In the course of our 45-minute conversation, he blasts Trump as a “phony” and a “dangerous man.” He also details his long-shot paths to the nomination, which he still believes he can win; his ambitious agenda to transform the Democratic Party into a people-funded movement for the working class; the challenges of having had to run a campaign “by the seat of our pants”; and why he feels sorry for Hillary Clinton – almost.