On a recent Friday afternoon in April, a large crowd gathered in a park on the shore of Lake Mendota, in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, for a Bernie Sanders rally. Spring hadn’t yet fully settled on the Midwest—it was overcast, with a cold wind blowing—but hundreds of people arrived early. Amid clusters of friends, parents with toddlers, single young men with brown beards, old women in knit caps, union members, students, and retirees, one group huddled for a photograph, yelling “Bern!” instead of “Cheese!” A man named Marc Daniels, who had driven up from Springfield, Illinois, stalked the edge of the crowd, holding a large sign that read “Mazel Tov! Medicare-For-All.” Onstage, a middle-aged trio—guitar, drums, and bass—played a cover of Crowded House’s little-remembered hit “Something So Strong,” which, among the longtime Sanders supporters and the newly Sanders curious, could have been mistaken for some kind of secular revival-rock tune: “Something so strong could carry us away / Something so strong could carry us today.”
The Madison rally was the kickoff for a carefully curated, four-day tour, from Wisconsin through Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. These are states where, in the 2016 primaries, Sanders either won or ran competitively against Hillary Clinton, and where, in that year’s general election, Clinton’s “blue wall” fell to Donald Trump. Clinton hadn’t made a single campaign stop in Wisconsin—a fact that became emblematic of the grip she lost on the region. Sanders, when he finally got up to speak, summoned this history. “Four years ago, despite losing the popular vote by three million votes, Donald Trump carried all of those states and won enough electoral votes to win the Presidency,” he said. “Together, we are going to make sure that that does not happen again. We’re going to win here in Wisconsin, we’re going to win in Indiana, we’re going to win in Ohio, we’re going to win in Michigan, and we’re going to win in Pennsylvania. And we’re going to win the election.”
The crowd went nuts. Sanders is currently the most well-known name in the crowded Democratic field. He can rightfully claim to have popularized many of the big policy ideas now championed by his competitors—taxing the rich, free college tuition, Medicare for All—and is leading the field in early fund-raising. He has framed his run for the Presidency not as a new effort but as a continuation of a campaign that many of his supporters—and hundreds of thousands of volunteers—believe he never really lost. (Last year, Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s longtime adviser, published a book titled “How Bernie Won.”) Now, in a single weekend, Sanders was going to cut across the terrain where he believes his hopes for the Presidency lie. The cranky old senator, the democratic socialist and 2016 insurgent, had come to the Midwest to make his electability argument.
After Madison came Gary, Indiana. In 2016, Sanders won the Indiana Democratic primary. But Lake County, where Gary is situated—the very northwestern corner of the state, which is, in some important cultural and economic ways, more tied to Illinois than to Indiana—went for Clinton. Gary is a working-class community and eighty per cent black. In 2016, black voters opted overwhelmingly for Sanders’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. The morning Sanders came to town, local community leaders had been invited to a roundtable discussion with Sanders at the Genesis Center, a preposterously large, Jetsons-era-inspired event venue, built as part of a failed revitalization effort in the nineteen-eighties. As the attendees trickled in, Meredith Colias-Pete, a reporter for the Gary Post-Tribune, pointed out some of the faces in the crowd: a guy from the steelworkers’ union; a local artist-activist. Colias-Pete had also heard that Gary’s mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, the former attorney general of Indiana, who, in 2016, supported Clinton, was planning to attend.
When the roundtable began, Sanders asked people to volunteer their questions and concerns, all at once. Questions were lobbed at him about jobs, education, the Green New Deal, health care, equality, fossil fuels, community policing, and the fate of “legacy” cities, older industrial communities where jobs have left and populations have declined. “The advantage of having a number of people make comments and ask questions, and kind of lump them together, is that you touched on a whole lot of fundamental concerns,” Sanders said, as he stood and held forth. He railed against austerity policies and discussed the relationship between youth unemployment and crime. “Somebody raised the question of the need for more black doctors, and that’s absolutely true,” he said. He riffed on the Green New Deal. He touted his support for a House bill proposed by Jim Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina (along with Cory Booker, Sanders’s Democratic competitor, from New Jersey), that would invest federal funds in distressed neighborhoods. Of a federal jobs guarantee, he said, “Is that a radical idea? I don’t think so.”