RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Frontrunning Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders revved up a crowd of thousands at a packed Richmond athletic center Thursday afternoon, five days before Virginia’s Super Tuesday vote.
Sanders wasted little time before going after President Trump when he took the stage.
“Donald Trump, we’re going to defeat you,” Sanders said, accusing the Republican president Trump of never reading but violating the Constitution as no president has done before.
“Your job is to bring people together as Americans, but this president is trying to divide people up by the color of their skin, where they were born, sexual orientation and gender,” Sanders said. “Donald Trump, we are all Americans, you’re not going to succeed in dividing us up.”
Sticking to a stump speech, Sanders spent about an hour going through his benchmark policies, and the income gap and its impact on working Americans was the common thread.
“We want a government who represents workers, not billionaires,” he said. “If Congress can give tax breaks to billionaires, we can cancel all student debt too.”
Sanders featured Richmond native singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus at the rally.
“I never thought I’d open up for a Bernie Sanders Rally,” she said to cheers from the crowd between songs. “Thanks for coming out for our future president.”
Sander’s meteoric rise after coming in second in the 2016 primary race has worried mainstream Democrats who fear his far left ideas could ostracize moderate voters. From universal healthcare to negating student debt, he has championed a host of controversial and potentially expensive issues. But for every moderate he’s spurned, he appears to have hit a chord with younger, more progressive voters.
Among them was Andrew Amihere, a 21-year-old political science major who was noticeably excited after hearing Sanders speak.
“He’s one of the only politicians talking about the issues facing me and my friends,” Amihere said, citing student loan debt, a guaranteed jobs program and legalization of marijuana. As for how realistic these goals are, he’s confident.
“With enough turnout he can do almost anything,” said Amihere, who took a bus and then walked the final leg of the trip with five classmates. “He has the base to win the nomination and the general election. I don’t think he’s hamstrung in any way.”
While Amihere voted — for the first time — for Hillary Clinton in 2016, she wasn’t his first choice and he hopes he doesn’t have to hold his nose while pulling the lever this year.
“I will hesitantly vote for whoever the nominee is,” he said. “But I won’t be happy about it.”
Steven Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said Sanders’ success with youth might work nationally or in crowded urban rallies, but Virginia’s decades as a purple state comes with a historically more moderate Democratic primary base. He cited the success of the state’s governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, who defeated the more progressive former Congressman Tom Perriello in the 2017 primary.
But Farnsworth didn’t count Sanders out.
“If Sanders wins in Virginia, it demonstrates that he can win in a state that looks far more like America than Iowa or New Hampshire,” he said.
Aggregate polling from FiveThirtyEight shows the Sanders ahead in the state by 6 points over Joe Biden, who once led the pack.
If Sanders does win, it will be because of increased turnout from young voters like Amihere. The good news for his campaign is that data show college students are participating in the electoral process more than ever. According to a 2018 Tufts university study, about 16% of undergrads voted in 2014, but that number more than doubled to 36% in 2018, both off-year elections with mostly congressional races on the ballot.
“Historically, voter participation rates in presidential elections have been far higher than in midterm elections,” the study found, citing the increased turnout in 2018 which flipped the House to the Democrats, as well as Virginia’s House and Senate. “This suggests a promising trajectory to student voting.”
Virginia voters go to the polls along with 13 other states on Tuesday, March 3.