My Experience at the Bernie Sanders Campaign Rally in Las Vegas
Yesterday, I spent much of my day with the “Bernie Sanders for President” campaign here in Nevada. Here’s a detailed report of that rally from start to end.
My home state will hold its caucus on February 20th. That means “what happens in Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay in Vegas,” at least when it comes to having an impact on the party primaries and who ultimately gets nominated by both the Democrats and Republicans. As the first state in the West to hold a caucus, we really will have a voice here in Nevada about choosing the next president.
For those expecting a gushing article in support of Sen. Sanders, sorry — you won’t read that here. Instead, I’ll attempt to write about the sitting Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate as impartially as I can. Full Disclosure: I favor most of Sen. Sanders’ policies. I will almost certainly support him in the state caucus. Nonetheless, I’d like to give an unfiltered perspective of what attending a Bernie Sanders’ campaign rally is like.
The word “grassroots” gets terribly overused in politics. Front runners and the best-financed campaigns don’t have to rely on grassroots politicking so much, since they can count on receiving substantial support from the political establishment and can blitz target voters with expensive campaign advertisements, mostly via television. That said, the Sanders campaign is clearly a grass-roots organization, to the point, there are almost no trappings of normal political sophistication that usually accompany viable candidates. I heard about the rally via an e-mail invite, which was probably sent by some hard-working staffer — either a volunteer or a terribly underpaid campaign worker — who made the invitation seem personal by the way it was addressed. I had previously signed up to be a local precinct chairman during the meeting I attended two months earlier along with a few hundred other local Sanders supporters. That said, the Sanders Campaign appears somewhat disorganized since they didn’t know I’d already signed up with the organization and had even donated money to the campaign. Accordingly, I confirmed my attendance as a guest, along with Marieta (my wife). When we arrived at 4 pm on Wednesday (January 6th) at the Tropicana Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, I took a position on the front row, near the spot where the speakers came out and walk onto the stage. Moreover, I signed up to attend the candidate’s dinner to be held later that evening at the MGM, where not only Sen. Sanders would be speaking, but Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sec. Hillary Clinton, as well. I knew this dinner scheduled to immediately follow the Sanders rally would be difficult to stomach, since it was hosted by Sen. Harry Reid, one of the most detestable politicians in the country.
The Tropicana Hotel and Casino — A Perfectly Unusual Location
Las Vegas has hosted two presidential debates, to date. The first took place at the Wynn (for Democrats). The other was held at the Venetian (for Republicans). The Democratic candidates’ dinner (unrelated) was at the MGM Grand. Frankly, I’m a little bothered that political rallies are being held at these high-dollar luxury resorts — which are casinos. Obviously, I have no objection to casinos and gambling. However, the choice as to where a public event takes place — not just that it’s a casino, but a location that isn’t exactly an entity that caters to working-class consumers — does scream an unintended message. Surely, holding a candidates’ dinner at the MGM must cost a fortune, say compared to a similar ballroom elsewhere at a “locals” casino which would be just as nice and far cheaper. Is this how the political parties waste donations, by blowing huge budgets on the most expensive resorts, that should make you think about donating to the RNC or the DNC (both parties have a history of doing this)? Presumably, your donations are going to get wasted on $239-a-night hotel rooms and expensive catering. That’s disgraceful.
Those who follow the Sanders campaign know that he often flies on Southwest Airlines. I was dying to ask him if he pays the extra $12.50 so he can board in the A-group, but passed on that. This campaign is economically frugal, managing its finances wisely. When I heard the Sanders rally would take place at the Tropicana, which is a second-rate casino located on the southern part of The Strip, I was pleased with this apparent thrift. Most of us who support Sen. Sanders and who live in Las Vegas doesn’t need to be dazzled with expensive ballrooms and lots of chandeliers. If anything, that’s both hypocritical and a turnoff. I prefer that campaign money gets spent wisely. Accordingly, Sanders held his rally inside a large ballroom, which wasn’t set up particularly well. The lighting was a bit annoying. The sound system was borderline acceptable. But most of us didn’t care. We were there as part of a growing populist movement, not to enjoy the comforts of a casino experience. As I said, I would much rather Sanders spend half as much on expenses and then do twice as many appearances than to blow money unnecessarily on frills. Once again, I was disgusted to see the Democratic Party doing their big bash at the MGM.
It’s been a decade since I’ve attended a presidential candidate’s rally. But I still have a decent frame of reference dating back to 1980. In the past, I’ve attended rallies for Ronald Reagan (several times), in addition to George H.W. Bush (several times), as well as Pat Buchanan, Bill Clinton, John McCain, John Kerry, John Edwards, and now — Bernie Sanders.
Republican rallies I’ve attended routinely stress patriotic themes. There’s usually lots of traditional music. I’ve seen rallies include the Pledge of Allegiance. Sports stars and celebrities often make short speeches. Some have included members of the clergy, who appeal to religious types.
Democrat rallies tend to be much more free-spirited, and some might say — disorganized. Less is scripted. At Bill Clinton’s rally in 1992, I remember there was a rock band playing and everyone was drinking beer (including the candidate). John Kerry’s rally (2004) seemed closer to the way the Republicans did things, which was probably due to his mainstream establishment background as a sitting U.S. Senator. John Edwards (2008) was casually informal at his rally, which seemed to mirror the Clinton rallies from 15 years earlier. The impression I got from the Sanders rally was that of a Pete Seeger folk music festival.
There were four speakers who came out in advance of Sen. Sanders. Lizz Winstead, Co-Creator and writer/producer for “The Daily Show” was the emcee. She did a nice job keeping the event moving along and gave the room a lighter touch in the face of weighty political issues. Singer-songwriter Jill Solbule then came up to the stage and played three original songs. Normally, this would have dragged on for too long. But the songs were fantastic and included clever progressive lyrics. I was very impressed with Sobule’s solo act with an amplified guitar, which I could have listened to for quite a while longer. However, one negative detracted from the musical interlude. During the chorus from one of her songs, she asked the audience to sing along, which included the word “fuck” shouted from the crowd. This would be fine for one of her concerts, and I’m certainly no prude when it comes to using that expletive, but I thought such profanity was inappropriate for use at the political rally of a major presidential candidate. There were many children in the audience, and while that word is likely to become part of everyone’s vocabulary, it was terribly out of place in this setting. I sent the campaign a note about this, voicing my objection. Again, I’m not offended. I just don’t want others to be turned off by this unnecessary vulgarity. After one of the campaign staffers came out and reminded everyone to attend the caucus, the final speaker was Chad Smith, drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His remarks could have used some polish and needed to be more substantive. But we were certainly willing to forgive this gifted musician for his lack of speaking ability. His enthusiasm more than made up for the rambling exuberance.
The doors opened at 4 pm. The first speaker came on at 4:45. Bernie Sanders was introduced to the crowd at about 5:20.
Bernie Sanders — ABC (Always Be Closing)
Sen. Sanders is not a gifted public speaker. Sanders isn’t entertaining. As evidenced by his numerous television appearances in a variety of different formats, he clearly has a sense of humor. However, he doesn’t bring that to the stage. In short, using the familiar political catchphrase, he’s “not somebody you want to have a beer with” (Well, perhaps I would).
Sanders is all business while onstage. One gets the feeling he knows he’s got a limited amount of time. So, he wants to squeeze every possible second out of conveying lots of facts, statistics, and details directly to his audience. One gets the impression sometimes this is more of a college lecture than a campaign rally. This technique, certainly genuine, plays well to intellectuals, students, progressives, and liberal activists which make up the base of his support. However, it doesn’t play nearly as well to those with little knowledge of current affairs. To bridge this divide, Sanders resorts to repeating the same phrases far more often than he should. He often brings up the “billionaire class,” and “the top one-tenth of one percent,” and “going after Wall Street.” These are applause lines for many who are looking for red-meat issues. However, uttering these phrases more often than needed, in my estimation, becomes repetitive.
Fortunately, Sanders doesn’t resort to empty seal calls, as we saw from the political right. This is as far away as you can get from the all-too-familiar audience prompts like “making America great again,” or the United States is the greatest country on earth (it’s not, as evidenced by about twenty major social and economic indicators). Instead, Sanders gives a stump speech based on substantive policy, for the most part, hitting all the familiar themes — including universal health care, raising the minimum wage, income inequality, campaign finance reform, free college education (which I do not support), reproductive rights, equal pay for women, civil rights for gays, an end to police brutality, immigration reform, banking reform, and so forth.
The Rally — My General Impressions
Given the warm-up acts and Sanders speaking for about about 30 minutes, this had the atmosphere of an old 1960’s sit-in. This impression was amplified by the makeup of the crowd, which I would estimate at perhaps 1,200 or so. The average age of listeners was certainly somewhere in their 20’s. That’s something of a surprise since Sanders is the oldest candidate running, yet he manages to draw support from young people in overwhelming numbers. One presumes some of this enthusiasm is due to his call for free college tuition (which won’t happen). However, most of the issues brought up by Sanders do seem to connect with many millennials. Ron Paul enjoyed a similar level of support from many young people during his last two presidential campaigns.
Totally absent from this rally was any sign of the Democratic Party establishment. No other candidates were introduced (highly unusual for any presidential campaign, which often tries to bridge constituencies). I expect that most of Nevada’s Democratic establishment supports Hillary Clinton, who was also campaigning in Las Vegas on this day. I was disappointed to not see more labor union members, which have expressed their support for Sanders. Another glaring void among the crowd was the notable absence of Blacks and Latinos, who according to polls are supporting the Clinton campaign in overwhelming numbers. This was a tremendous disappointment given that Sanders’ populist message is geared towards protecting rights and opportunities for minorities and supporting the working class. All I can ask is, “what in the hell are the Hillary Clinton supporters thinking?”
My Reasons for Supporting the Sanders Campaign
I don’t want to discourage anyone who supports Bernie Sanders, but he’s not going to win the Democratic nomination. Aside from the Clinton machine being a formidable gauntlet, Sanders isn’t a traditional Democrat. Remember, he’s an avowed Socialist. In a sense, he’s joining the baseball team because there’s no debate club. He’s running as a Democrat because since there’s no other option in the thoroughly corrupt two-party system when it comes to promoting truly progressive ideas to millions of voters.
Sanders’ candidacy isn’t important necessarily because we think he’s going to be elected as the next president. It’s important because he’s laying a solid foundation for new ideas that haven’t been discussed in this country in more than two generations. He’s taking out the Comet and scrubbing the old tarnish off of “liberalism” which has been a dirty word in the American political mainstream since the 1970s. He’s recasting the progressive movement to become focused on significant issues and relevant in future elections. In short, Sanders’ will eventually see a victory for the neo-Socialist agenda. Too bad, he’ll probably be in his 80’s and retired from politics when that ultimately happens while he watches gleefully as a younger, more polished, and more electable presidential candidate picks up the shiny mantel of progressive ideas and carries it forward. To this objective, Sanders will go down in history not as a president, but as a political pioneer. For those of us who believe in the validity of most of his ideas, it’s vital that we support him now and for as long as he can remain in the spotlight while continuing to introduce the principles of Democratic Socialism to millions of Americans who desperately need to hear this message and hope of achieving real change.
Postscript: Although I attended the MGM candidates dinner held afterward, I refused to go along with the Harry Reid-hosted charade and departed the ballroom early in protest.