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April 07, 2016

Can Bernie Sanders translate supporters' passion into Pa. victory?

Droves declare they've Felt the Bern; he needs them to take that message to the streets and voting booths

Politics Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders at Temple U. Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders brought a familiar message to Temple University's Liacouras Center in April, and the crowd ate it up.

With Pennsylvania’s April 26 primary looming a shade under three weeks away, a pair of America’s presidential candidates turned their attention Wednesday to the city where they could receive the Democratic Party’s nomination this summer.

While speaking at the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO convention, front-running Hillary Clinton shouted out Villanova’s “come-from-behind victory” over North Carolina in a game in which the Wildcats held a late 10-point lead. (She talked about other stuff, too.)

For his part, on a busy multi-event campaign day, revolution-minded Bernie Sanders headlined a rally at Temple University’s Liacouras Center, a building that’s home to an Owls men’s basketball team that lost a heartbreaking game on a buzzer-beating shot by the Iowa Hawkeyes.

“Anyone who thinks Bernie won’t win in Pennsylvania aren’t plugged in to what’s going on out here." – John Fetterman, U.S. Senate candidate

At an event that drew a crowd which necessitated an overflow room for supporters unable to get a seat inside the 10,200-seat arena, Sanders sparked a semantic controversy over his foe’s qualification for office.

If narrative holds form, that’ll be the talking point for a few minutes, but it's one that’s irrelevant to the story I’m writing today, that being a consideration of whether fan passion can translate into delegate-tally victory.

Nobody can dispute the fact that the Berning sensation embraced by Sanders’ supporters is strong.

About three hours before the scheduled 8 p.m. start, the line spanned the square block surrounding the Liacouras Center. Sporting pins, T-shirts and signs, thousands stood along North Broad and North 15th streets, Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Montgomery Avenue waiting to get into an area festooned with signs declaring “A Future To Believe In.” Outside, vendors sold pro-Sanders swag to those already not donning it.

Among those in line were Philly Jesus …

… Republican defector Jay Falstad, who drove about 80 miles from Millington, Maryland, to publicly declare his Sanders support …

and John Fetterman, the U.S. Senate candidate from Braddock, Pennsylvania, who was among the few elected officials who publicly felt the Bern.

There’s good reason for that endorsement. Fetterman’s chances of success lay primarily in energizing the same voters who rally behind Sanders’ presidential candidacy.

On Wednesday, campaign staffers said Fetterman was in “rock star” mode with hundreds of selfie requests.

Before heading back across the state for a Thursday filled with western Pennsylvania campaign events, he told PhillyVoice that he’s sensing a momentum shift for both campaigns across the commonwealth, even if both trail in the polls.

“Who else can draw this kind of crowd?” he said. “Anyone who thinks Bernie won’t win in Pennsylvania aren’t plugged in to what’s going on out here. … We’re moving up in the polls, and connecting with Sanders’ voters is critical to that. [The campaign is] going largely as we had hoped and anticipated it would.”

Big dreamers dream big, but transforming enthusiasm into tangible victory – something politicos seem to think will elude both candidates – is a tricky conundrum.

Inside the building some 45 minutes before the scheduled start, “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” chants rang out as supporters started filling in seats in the arena’s upper tier. That gave way to a lower-level crowd “wave” by 7:35 p.m., followed by a few Motown hits and Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” played over the sound system.

As the clock struck 8 p.m., warmup acts took to the small stage, with a single podium and no chairs in the middle of the floor. Campaign spokeswoman Symone Sanders said the candidate had just been outside talking to the overflow crowd unable to get into the nearly filled arena yet.

The openers spoke about Sanders’ free-college-tuition proposal – obviously a fan favorite here. They urged attendees to get out and canvass in advance of the primary (“We’re going to prove the establishment wrong again,” staffer Lisa Mosley said) and brought up applause lines about single-payer health care, wage fairness, a $15 minimum wage, ending the school-to-prison pipeline and bringing an end to jobs being sent overseas.

They were familiar lines, and ones that obviously connect with this sort of audience.

The job of introducing Sanders fell to state Sen. Art Haywood, who represents portions of Northwest Philadelphia.

He spoke about struggling schools and the fact that his son has gotten stopped by police while walking to and from work. He spoke about “a man who believes in the same things I believe in, what I want for my community, what I want for my country.”

“What the [establishment] tries to do is limit your options to get you to think small. We don’t have to accept those options.” – Bernie Sanders, presidential candidate

As Sanders bounded out onto the stage, acoustics matched those of basketball games when the home team wins a nail-biter. He admitted immediately that he had a “loud, large, raucous crowd” before him.

Like Fetterman, he spoke about momentum shifts, winning seven of the past eight caucuses and primaries and the thought that his opponent’s lead has been whittled away in Pennsylvania.

Then he segued into his standard “join the revolution” stump speech. Criminal-justice/police reform, ending the “war on drugs,” providing health care for all since it’s a human right, deriding Republican front-runner Donald Trump and taking power back from the rich drew standardly adoring responses from a crowd where most stood throughout the address.

This was Bernie’s audience. They walked into the Liacouras Center knowing they’d vote for him in three weeks. But the underlying reality of the situation is this: Clinton has the local power structure – i.e. machine – behind her.

It was difficult not to be in the room and think that the next three weeks could make or break Sanders’ chances.

If Philly carries him to victory statewide and nationally, it’d be easy to look back at the Temple event as an important narrative moment. That would mean the thousands upon thousands of folks on hand followed through with their get-out-the-vote mission. 

What seems like a long shot today may look like a silly thought by the time the calendar reaches April 27.

Near the end of his speech, Sanders said something that encapsulated all that’s brought him from afterthought status to one that has forced Clinton to fight for her political standing.

“Real change never takes place from the top down. It’s always from the bottom up,” he offered as a power-to-the-people message to fire up his camp. “What the [establishment] tries to do is limit your options to get you to think small. We don’t have to accept those options.”

It was a line that showed the challenge facing both Sanders and Fetterman. Their message has been enthusiastically received by more voters than they say the polls reflect. (Ironically, if you strip the visceral anger away, it's not all that different from a GOP dynamic that's seen Trump ride an anti-establishment wave to the top of the leaderboard.)

They’ve taken a leap of faith, but where they land is up to Pennsylvania voters now. If what the candidates say holds true – and it's impossible to know whether it can at this point – conventional political wisdom will have a lot of explaining to do.