Bernie Sanders has spent the past month climbing in the early primary polls and delivering his stump speech to overflow crowds in town halls and school gymnasiums from New Hampshire to Nevada. But even as the independent senator from Vermont builds momentum on the ground and in the bank — he's already raised $8.3 million in mostly small donations — there is no place more energized and passionate about his campaign than the Internet.
On social media, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is being run in reverse: Supporters lavish the same kind of attention on Sanders' every tweet or Facebook post that the network news broadcasts typically devote to Hillary Clinton's daily grind. To get at why, Mic posed two simple questions to the truest believers:
How did you first hear about Bernie Sanders, and what do you think sets him apart from all the other candidates?
Their answers — more than 1,600 in a little more than 24 hours — ranged from deeply drawn-out laundry lists of Sanders' pet issues to personal stories to loud-and-proud arguments attesting to his unique political substance. The Sanders phenomenon might be new to national press, but the senator has been forging and fortifying his ties to the progressive activist community for decades. His early success is less a "surge" than the natural progression of slow-building wave Sanders hopes will crest inland — in Iowa, perhaps? — as the first contest of the primary season begins early next year.
For now, the real strength of Sanders' support seems to lie in the trust he inspires among potential voters. Though many expressed admiration for Clinton, the idea that Sanders is "different from all the other candidates" popped up over and again. This aligns with the most recent polling from Bloomberg, which finds Sanders with a significant lead over the "frontrunner" on the question of authenticity. In New Hampshire and Iowa, Sanders leads Clinton by 12 and 17 points, respectively.
Still, the numbers can leave you cold. The responses to our unscientific survey will not. Here are the "Sanderistas" in their own words:
He speaks a very harsh truth to the powerful on Wall Street...
Walt Burnham: "Bernie Sanders has been telling the same truths about corporate malfeasance, banks, Wall Street, education, equal opportunity, the environment — for many years. He's been sneered at and dismissed by the corporate shills in Congress all the while but he has never wavered or been cowed by their arrogance.
HE STRIKES ME AS A SINCERELY HONEST PERSON, a true rarity in politics. He has an appropriately feisty nature."
... and he doesn't stop speaking until he's good and ready.
Colleen Kennedy: "Sanders was the keynote at the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit this year. My job as a volunteer was to make sure his speech didn't run past his allotted time slot, and I was provided signs to hold up to him so he would know when to stop. He filibustered for 17 extra minutes and pointed right at my face as he did it.
It was the most magical thing that ever happened to me."
The message in those speeches is consistent and passionate...
Beth Sarver: "His energy is gruff yet kind, honest and takes no bullshit. His ideas are sound and resonate with me deeply. He is consistent and sassy and he is communicating honestly about one of the most important aspect of politics, engaged citizenry. The only way that he will win, is if all of us engage and do our part by voting and investing our creative capitol in improving this nation for all people.
There is not one other candidate that inspires me at all."
... and it's not an act — he's the same on the campaign trail as he is visiting a college class.
Jordan Dixon: "I first heard Bernie speak in my "Race Relations in the United States" class at the University of Vermont. I remember thinking 'Wow, this congressman is taking time out of his schedule to talk to a bunch of first year students?' He showed me that a politician doesn't have to be the stereotype we've always seen: spewing what they think we want to hear but remaining distant and detached from their constituents, only focused on where the money comes from and staying in their seat of power."
In difficult or politically sensitive moments, Sanders is honest about his feelings...
Jackie Kabanda: "After the Charlestown shootings, others expressed sadness but talked about not really knowing what happened or why. Bernie cut through the noise to name it what it was: racism. And specifically, racism not just expressed by one violent individual, but a systemic problem in the country today. No euphemism, no dancing around it. You can't address or solve a problem without naming it.
That's when I knew he was different, for the better."
... even if that means he needs to bail on young visitors to return to work.
Peter Huffman: "I had a meeting with Bernie Sanders as a high schooler at his office in the Capitol. What set him apart from the other big name politicians that I met was that he wasn't 'sugary sweet' and he didn't try to pretend that he wasn't busy. He was all business. He talked with us, connected as a human being, and explained that we, as a nation, were in the middle of a huge crisis (the debt crisis of Summer '11) and that he needed to get back to the floor."
His consistency and fiery style has built new trust among disillusioned voters...
Eddy Tingles: "Even as someone far from Bernie on the political spectrum, he's literally the only candidate I trust. I like Rand's libertarian politics but his willingness to cater to the mainstream at the expense of his values puts him behind Bernie. I first heard about Bernie on the internet a few months before he started talking about a presidential run, and he just seems like a real straight shooter."
... and strikes a serious contrast with candidates who have wavered on big issues.
Scott Novak: "My boyfriend and I are huge Bernie Sanders supporters. Unlike Clinton, Bernie has been standing up for LGBT Americans for years now. Notably, he voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Clinton administration signed into law. I first heard about Bernie after the 2008 financial crisis when he called out the big banks for their crimes, and I have admired him ever since."
But there is one question:
Drew Martin: "Bernie has been our collective conscience for many years now. The question is, do we have the courage to vote for him?"
If those latest polls out of the early voting states are any indication, Democrats have become increasingly willing to consider the prospect. With more than seven months until the first caucus-goers begin lining up at schoolhouses and election halls across Iowa, one thing seems inarguably clear: If Sanders doesn't win, he won't be able to blame the Internet.