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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

'It's a Good Time to Be a Liberal': Inside Bernie Sanders's Big Primary Night Celebration

After Bernie Sanders drubbed Hillary Clinton in a New Hampshire primary blowout, his supporters were jubilant, confident, and convinced that their man has a real good shot to be president.

by Livia Gershon
Feb 10 2016, 5:12pm

Bernie Sanders on the night of the New Hampshire primary. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Pretty much every presidential candidate who isn't Jeb Bush can tell a story about how their parents would never have imagined their child achieving such great things. But when Bernie Sanders evoked the memory of his parents raising him in a small, rent-controlled Brooklyn apartment while celebrating his victory in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, it was especially easy to imagine their amazement. The 74-year-old scruffy Jewish socialist's campaign's success would have shocked them, but it also caught pretty much the entire political system by surprise.

Even for pundits who knew that support for Sanders has been growing in recent months, the New Hampshire results were striking. The Vermont senator won New Hampshire with 60 percent of the vote, far ahead of Hillary Clinton's 38 percent, a bigger margin of victory than most polls had been predicting. Until mid-January, the well-respected data journalism site FiveThirtyEight had anticipated an outright Clinton win in the state. And Clinton has absolutely crushed her opponent when it comes to getting endorsements from elected officials and other prominent figures.

Of course, for a lot of Sanders supporters, including many of the ones who filled the gym at Concord High School for the Sanders primary night party, that lack of establishment support is a big part of his appeal.

Elias Tyrrel-Walker, a 17-year-old high school senior, has been volunteering for the Sanders campaign at local colleges even though he's not yet old enough to vote himself.

"I feel like he's just something new," he said. "It seems like he's running on a platform of ideas people actually care about."

Read: How the Republican Candidates' New Hampshire Predictions Got It Wrong

The party, filled with volunteers who ranged from Tyrrel-Walker's age to Sanders's, was packed with national and international media. There was stomping, shouting, and a set, heavy on disco and funk, from DJ Mel of Austin, who also played Obama's 2013 inaugural ball.

If the primary result didn't make it clear, the Sanders operation is getting more serious than it was when it began: Early in the evening, several dozen supporters found themselves milling outside the high school in 20-degree weather because they lacked tickets that no one had told them they needed. (Finally, well after the primary had been declared for Sanders, they were finally allowed in.)

After the crowd had watched Clinton's concession speech on the big screen, Sanders took the stage and quickly made note of how many voters had come to the polls. "Yuge voter turnout," he said, prompting the crowed to echo back, "Yuge!"

"What happened here in New Hampshire in terms of an enthused electorate—this is what will happen all over this country," he went, before launching into a comprehensive stump speech about government-run health care, free college, criminal justice reforms, climate change, and the rest of his liberalism-on-steroids agenda.

For the most part, Sanders struck a pleasant tone toward Clinton, congratulating her campaign on its hard work and insisting that Democrats unite around whoever is chosen as the nominee. But he also acknowledged the increasingly aggressive intra-party contest.

"They're throwing everything against me except the kitchen sink, and I have a feeling that kitchen sink is coming soon," he said.

But many of the Sanders supporters at the event said tension with Clinton was a nonissue and that they'd obviously support her in the general election if it was necessary to keep a Republican out of the White House.

Silvia Styles, a 60-year-old volunteer who said her politics have been getting more progressive since the Bush-Cheney years, said the Sanders campaign seems to be pushing Clinton left.

"I hear Hillary say the kinds of things recently that Bernie's been saying this whole time," she said.

Brian Tourgee said he had actively considered voting for Clinton in the primary. He preferred Sanders's policy positions but worried about how he'd fare in a general election. Tourgee's 18-year-old daughter Michelle had been volunteering with the campaign, but he's had his heart broken by political campaigns before and didn't get as involved as she did, he said. But he copped to a certain amount of excitement about the election results.

"It's a good time to be a liberal," he said. "I'm not going to run away from that word."

Some Sanders fans, however, seemed shaken by the loud conflicts with the Clinton campaign in recent weeks. Will Stockinger, a recent college graduate who's enthusiastic about getting money out of politics, said it's possible he might stay home on Election Day in November.

"At first I was sure I would vote for Hillary if she got the nomination, but as the campaign goes on I am less and less sure of that," he said.

Stockinger said he sees himself as an independent because he's frustrated with the entire political system. He said the same is true of many of his friends, who span the ideological spectrum from Greens to libertarians. And Clinton seems to be very much a part of that system.

For other supporters, the key to Sanders's appeal is his economic message. Matt Firmani, who traveled from Boston to see the candidate and ended up sitting on stage behind him, said a couple of years ago he was struggling to get by at a minimum-wage job. He eventually signed up for government assistance, which helped him make it through the rough patch and get a much better job at the 3D printing company where he works now.

"I really, really, really do believe in government as a service for the people," he said.

John Mark Blowen, a 68-year-old former draft resister who had steered clear of politics for decades, echoed that sentiment.

"What he's saying is that government is the way we take care of each other," he said. "I don't know if he can win, but he's moving things in the direction of human beings looking out for one another."

The question of whether Sanders could possibly win the nomination is, of course, a highly debatable one. New Hampshire has the advantage of being next to his home state. And Democratic voters in New Hampshire—as well as in Iowa, where he lost to Clinton by a hair—are largely white liberals, the group he's been doing best with so far. In national polls, he's consistently been behind Clinton. And the next states to vote, Nevada and South Carolina, have Democratic electorates that are less liberal and much less overwhelmingly white.

But Sanders's first step toward winning in those states is to get voters across the country to take a closer look at him. And his big New Hampshire win is going to convince a lot of people to do just that.