America is feeling the Bern: Bernie Sanders draws overflow crowds -- and surges in the polls

Once written off as a fringe candidate, the Vermont senator's performance is taking many pundits by surprise

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published June 16, 2015 6:24PM (EDT)

  (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

Some voters in the early voting states seem to be "feeling the Bern," an enthusiastic reference to the candidacy of 73-year-old Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Sanders appeared before a standing-room only crowd of more than 700 supporters at a Friday night rally in Iowa, which the Wall Street Journal notes is "the same number who went to a Hillary Clinton event on Sunday that featured a buffet table and a live band."

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In Wisconsin, Sanders took a surprising 41 percent in the Democratic Party straw poll at the state convention, losing to Clinton by just eight points.

And Sanders is surging in New Hampshire, a crucial early primary state. According to a recent Morning Consult New Hampshire poll, Sanders holds an impressive 32% to Clinton's 44%, and at a recent event in Keene, New Hampshire, the more than 1,000 people who showed up to see the democratic socialist couldn't all fit into the room.

"I am surprised by the size of the crowds. In Keene, New Hampshire, on Saturday, we had close to a thousand people," Sanders told reporters.

Sanders told NPR's Tamra Keith that he was "stunned" by people's reactions on the trail and the large crowds he draws. "If you were to ask me a couple of months ago whether we would have larger crowds than any other candidate out there, I would not have told you that that would be the case," he said.

More than 3,000 supporters showed up to a fiery Sanders rally on in Minneapolis recently. The longest-serving independent in congressional history said the crowds left him "stunned. Stunned. I mean I had to fight my way to get into the room. Standing room only. Minneapolis was literally beyond belief."

The crowds have translated to some cash for Sanders. His campaign said it expects to have about $10 million on hand by the end of the month from more than 200,000 contibutors and plans to raise about $50 million total. But that figure is about half of what the Clinton campaign is reportedly expected to raise.

"We are going to be outspent, but that was never the question," Sanders said. "The question is could we raise the money to run a winning campaign? And I think we can."

While Clinton had spent recent weeks on a so-called listening tour across Iowa and New Hampshire,  visiting with small groups of voters, her campaign's official kick-off saw a crowd of 5,000 at New York City's Roosevelt Island.

According to Sanders' campaign, more than 3,000 people have already RSVP’d for a rally in Denver, Colorado on Saturday.

Sanders cautioned Beltway reporters to not write-off the large crowds, assuring them that "this is not an educational campaign. This is not a protest campaign. This is a campaign to win.”

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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2016 Elections Bernie Sanders Democratic Primaries Hillary Clinton Iowa Caucuses New Hampshire Primary