There was a moment during Bernie Sanders' speech to a sold-out, low-dollar fundraiser (1,200 people paid the minimum contribution of $50 to see the senator from Vermont deliver his populist message) where it seemed the candidate had finally reached the resonance he had been waiting for.
“If a bank is too big to fail, it is”—he paused, and a chorus of voices echoed in unison—“too big to exist!” Sanders cracked a smile. “You know my speeches better than I do," he said.
It was one of two such moments in the speech that the candidate sent his message to what he calls the “billionaire class.”
Sanders was virtually unknown to the American public six months ago and now has an enthusiastic following in many parts of the country, even the relatively conservative southeast. Just last month, right-wing Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) brought out 300 people at a free outdoor event in Newnan, Georgia, one of the most conservative towns in the state. Sanders drew four times as many people willing to shell out the $50 entrance fee in Atlanta. Sanders got to the event like many of the attendees did, riding the public transit system, MARTA, from the airport, where he arrived on a coach flight.
As Atlanta native and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King writes, Sanders' campaign is “not a fad.” The senator has built a campaign that has overtaken his likely rival, Hillary Clinton, in early primary states, and he's on a quest to make inroads in the South, where a mix of working-class whites, Latinos, and black voters control most of the Democratic delegates. In Atlanta, the president of the local Communications Workers of America, Ed Barlow, a fiery black organizer, praised Sanders as fighting harder for American workers than anyone else in the nation's capital.
Most presidential fundraisers are big-ticket events. When Hillary Clinton had one in Atlanta earlier in the summer, it took place at Buckhead Mansion, a luxury rental space, in an event that was closed to the press. When Sanders came to Atlanta, attendees came from every part of the city, and every race, gender and age was represented, from college kids decked out in home-made "Bernie" shirts to black union workers to elderly advocates for veterans and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Following his Atlanta trip on Friday, Sanders spoke at three South Carolina events alongside veteran civil rights activist and academic Cornel West. First came his event at Benedict College, a small historically black college in Columbia, South Carolina, where he spoke to an audience of 1,000 people, roughly half white and half minority, according to local media.
“Bernie Sanders is calling for a political revolution predicated on a moral and spiritual awakening. We've got to straighten our backs up. Come together across color, across class, across sexual orientation, across region. That's what Bernie Sanders' campaign is all about,” thundered West, as the audience gave him a standing ovation. “You've gotta get in on the love train. That's what Bernie Sanders' campaign is. It's a love train. Do you love working people? Do you love poor people? Do you love the declining middle class? We love rich folk too, but we can't stand greed. We can't stand avaricious activity. We can't stand injustice.”
There is evidence that Sanders' speeches in South Carolina have started to move the dial. The president of Benedict's freshman class, Justin Barnett of Augusta, Georgia, signed up to volunteer for Sanders. “We shouldn't have women who are just out of labor having to stand on their feet several hours a day,” he said, explaining that his mother had to return to work the week after he was born because she didn't have enough vacation and sick days. “He made a lot of great points.”
At his event at Winthrop University, Sanders spoke to nearly 4,500 people, and was introduced by a local Black Lives Matter activist in addition to West.
Still, Sanders faces an uphill climb in South Carolina, the pivotal southern state. Early in the month, polls were putting him at just 9 percent there, which Public Policy Polling says makes the state the worst for him in the country. In neighboring Georgia, things have been a bit rosier, with Sanders pulling in nearly a quarter of Democrats. Among Latinos, he is leading Hillary Clinton; among Georgia Democrats under the age of 30, Sanders leads among two-thirds of voters.
Michelle Jones was one Atlanta attendee who fits in both categories. “I support Bernie because I was a single mother for many years and knew first-hand what it meant to work 40 to 50 hours a week and only be able to make ends meet. Being able to afford health insurance for myself was out of the question and saving for my kids to go to college seemed impossible. I always questioned why in the richest nation in the world we couldn't provide basic care to its citizens the way they do in other countries, so when I heard Bernie's positions on these same issues, he really spoke to my heart,” she said.
Over the weekend, CBS News and YouGov released a new poll showing Sanders at 23 percent in South Carolina, evidence that his concerted effort to begin outreach in the South is bearing fruit. In neighboring North Carolina, Sanders is actually beating Clinton among white Democrats — pretty remarkable considering that Southern white Democrats are known to be one of the party's most conservative constituencies.
Sanders ended his weekend tour with a rally of nearly 9,100 people in Greensboro, North Carolina, the site of famous civil rights-era sit-ins in segregated diners. (A late 2014 rally with both Hillary Clinton and the state senator, Kay Hagan, drew 1,800 in the city of Charlotte, which is twice as large.)
On Monday, Sanders spoke to two crowds from very different political worlds. In the morning, he spoke to 15,000 students at Liberty University, a conservative Christian college. In an usual overture, they had invited him to a student convocation. Sanders offered a defense of progressive social positions, but called for common ground on issues like protecting the vulnerable and tackling income inequality. He quoted scripture, citing Matthew 7:12 to say that we must “do unto others what you have them do to you.”
Watch the speech below:
The speech drew some interesting reactions from students, many of whom took to social media to say that while they disagreed with Sanders, they respected him for offering his view to an audience that does not usually hear a progressive message.
In the evening, Sanders returned to his fans, drawing thousands in Manassas, Virginia. The president of the nation's largest flight attendants union introduced the senator, asking attendees if they “feel the Bern.”
There are reports that Hillary Clinton plans to make the South her “firewall” for the nomination; she expects large wins here to blunt the momentum Sanders is expected to gain from strong showings in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.