NASHUA, New Hampshire — On the cusp of a likely win in the Granite State's primary tomorrow, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) basked in the improbability of it all.
Speaking in the gymnasium of Daniel Webster College here on Monday, Sanders recalled that he was barely more than an asterisk in the polls when he began testing the waters for a presidential bid one year ago. So how did the 74-year-old democratic socialist emerge as a viable threat to Hillary Clinton's once-inevitable campaign for the Democratic nomination?
"I've been doing something extremely radical," Sanders told hundreds of cheering supporters. "We're telling the American people the truth."
That truth, Sanders proclaimed, is that the American economy is "rigged" for corporate interests and the top 1%, abetted by a "corrupt," money-soaked political process, reiterating points he has hammered home throughout the course of the campaign.
Dethroning entrenched interests and tackling deep-rooted social problems like wealth inequality would prove a Herculean task for any president, let alone one who would almost certainly be dealing with a Congress under at least partial Republican control. But for many of the young voters who attended Sanders' New Hampshire events on Monday, that's not quite the point. They see Sanders' impassioned crusades against big money and special interests as evidence of a basic integrity they find all too rare in contemporary politics. And Sanders' supporters are most fond of citing his personal qualities, as much as his stances on issues like wages or criminal justice reform, when asked why they're supporting him.
"[Sanders] hasn't flipped on any issues, but she flips on issues all the time."
A pointed contrast: "He's not funded by funded by big companies," Allison Moriarty, a 27-year-old video game design student at Daniel Webster, told Mic. "A lot of other politicians have corporations in mind."
Moriarty identified Clinton as one such politician, saying she was bothered that the former secretary of state "got paid a ton of money" to deliver speeches before major financial institutions like Goldman Sachs. Sanders has blasted Clinton for raking in cash from Wall Street firms, including $675,000 from Goldman alone.
Sympathy for Clinton was hard to come by among the young voters who packed Sanders' rallies on Monday. Sanders trounced Clinton by 70 points among those under 30 in the Iowa caucuses, and he leads Clinton 77% to 23% among 18-to-29-year-olds in New Hampshire, according to a University of Massachusetts-Lowell tracking poll released Monday.
While Sanders' young supporters evince strong enthusiasm for his candidacy, those lopsided margins can also be chalked up in part to significant reservations about the Democratic frontrunner.
"I don't want to see Hillary become president," 19-year-old AmeriCorps volunteer Peter Stockin told Mic ahead of Sanders' Nashua event. "[Sanders] hasn't flipped on any issues, but she flips on issues all the time, like saying she's a moderate, then turning around and saying she's a progressive."
Sanders has questioned Clinton's progressive bona fides in recent days, noting that she said last year that she's "guilty" of being "moderate and center."
For Jamie Tremblay, a Massachusetts pre-school teacher who drove up to Nashua with partner Megan Blongy to see Sanders speak, Clinton's evolving views take on personal significance.
"Bernie's very supportive of the gay community," Tremblay told Mic. "Hillary changed a lot of her beliefs over the last few years. She's acting like a whole new person."
Those misgivings aside, Tremblay and Blongy said they'd vastly prefer a Clinton presidency to a Republican one, and both would support her in the general election should she prevail over Sanders.
Emily Johnson, a college student and climate change activist who attended Sanders' rally at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, told Mic that while she prefers the Vermonter, Clinton has her admiration.
"She's done a lot of great things for our country," Johnson said, citing her work as a globe-trotting diplomat.
Not all Sanders backers were so sure they could get behind Clinton.
Luis Rodriguez, a Daniel Webster undergraduate who said he planned to register to vote soon, mentioned Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rodriguez's home state, as his second choice, lauding Rubio's 2013 sponsorship of the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill. And Brian Campbell, who attended Sanders' rally with Rodriguez and is registered to vote in Rhode Island, indicated he'd have a tough time voting for Clinton.
"She's corrupt," Campbell said, telling Mic that she's too cozy with "a lot of business interests."
Harnessing a "revolution": While Sanders is benefiting from left-wing doubts about Clinton, he hopes to turn his campaign into a constructive vehicle for a "political revolution" that will last long after the final ballot is counted in November.
Asked what that revolution looked like to them, Sanders' supporters were hardly unanimous in their responses. Tremblay told Mic that Sanders' election would transform how the world views the United States, which Sanders never tires of noting remains the only industrialized country to lack universal health coverage for its citizens. Johnson, the climate change activist, pointed to Sanders' robust climate change plan, calling it a revolution unto itself.
And though promises of revolution may unsettle small-c conservative Americans, Stockin the AmeriCorps volunteer finds Sanders' pledge reassuring.
"It means that there's better to come," Stockin said. Pressing social problems like poverty aren't "going to get fixed in a day," he granted, but a Sanders administration would set the country on the path toward tackling large challenges.
The question confronting Sanders, should he pull off an historic upset and win the presidency, is whether the structural obstacles to change he'd confront in Washington would disillusion his idealistic young supporters, as happened with many of the millennials who voted for Barack Obama in droves in 2008. In Thursday night's Democratic debate, Clinton sought to depict Sanders as someone who was setting his supporters up for disappointment, touting herself as someone who wouldn't make promises she couldn't keep.
But should Sanders come up short, Joe Rego won't be among those disappointed supporters. The 21-year-old, who works two jobs to make ends meet, told Mic that he had never voted, let alone volunteered, for a candidate before Sanders, whose promise of transformative change shook him of his political apathy. Still, Rego said he hardly saw the senator as a messianic figure with all the answers.
"Bernie doesn't leave much room for questions" on the logistics of policy, Rego said, observing that Sanders much preferred to stick to his standard stump speech railing against inequality and injustice.
Should Sanders prevail here tomorrow, there will plenty of time yet for Sanders to face such questions.
Get the five stories that will challenge you to rethink the world by signing up for MicCheck Daily.