Hard-Charging Sanders Has Little Time for Retail Politics

Nov 2, 2015

Sanders arrived at the William B. Cashin Senior Center in Manchester around noon Friday, having just flown in from Washington and a 3 a.m. Senate vote on the latest budget deal.

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He wasted no time jumping straight to the issues he says aren’t getting the airtime they deserve, like the high cost of prescription drugs. He said this is forcing seniors to make tough choices about “whether they heat their homes adequately, whether they put food on the table that they need or whether they purchase the medicine that they desperately need,” he intoned from a podium.

Sanders spoke for about an hour, took questions, and closed by talking about a bill he introduced to make election day a national holiday.

“And with that I have got to get going, but I want to thank you all very much for being here,” he says. He shakes a few hands on his way from the podium, waves to the residents of the senior center in the back of the room whose card games he’d delayed, and in less than a minute he’s out the door.

Unlike most politicians, Sanders doesn’t so much work a room as move through it efficiently, some might even say brusquely. It’s the same approach whether he’s speaking to a room of undecided voters or thanking a dozen or so committed campaign volunteers.

He keeps a busy schedule. For him the serious business of speaking to the issues is more important than kissing babies and pressing the flesh.

That same day he had scheduled a meeting with the editorial board of the Union Leader, a taping at WMUR TV, an appearance at a phone banking effort by supporters in Nashua, and another town-hall meeting in Derry. At the Cashin Senior Center, he didn’t have time to linger.

But it’s not clear if any of that matters to voters.

Not ‘Playing the Politician Card’

I try to catch up with him again at the Nashua campaign office, but arrive about ten minutes late. By the time I get in the door, he’s already headed out. Again, from the conclusion of his speech, which I’m told was about the importance of the grassroots to the political revolution he believes the country needs, he’s out to the car in less than a minute.

By taking this approach, Sanders eschews one narrative of what the New Hampshire is supposedly all about: candidates meeting, shaking hands with, and looking individual voters in the eye. But to his supporters, the retail politicking other candidates do is just a side-show.

“He’s a very busy guy, and I think that overall he’s got that sort of gruffness about him, he's not like 'hey, how's it going vote for me.' He's not that kind of 'Hail, fellow. Well met!'” says Elise Macdonald a campaign volunteer from Nashua who has gone to several events with the Senator.

In Manchester, Sanders spoke for about an hour, but did not speak with the residents of the Senior Center he visited one-on-one
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

“His policies and his positions speak for him,” she continues, “He doesn’t have to kiss as many babies because people understand that he is for them and he supports them in a real way, not in a media ready way.”

Indeed, if Sanders truly did want to show he could interact with voters one-on-one he could publicize other stops he campaign makes. Before heading to the phone bank Sanders stopped at the Riverwalk Café in Nashua, where before heading to the phone bank.

Katey Almeida, who was working the counter, says earlier in the day she had a customer walk-in who was a Sanders look-alike.

“And then so, four hours later, actual Bernie Sanders came in,” she explains, “and it was completely dead there was only one staff member out front. And I just looked around for a minute and thought I was imagining things.”

Almeida and her co-workers say Sanders was very pleasant, made jokes about his hair and his resemblance to comedian Larry David , and asked which pastries they made in-house. She says he tipped well, and acted like any other customer.

“A friend of mine did say something interesting that she thought like if Hillary had come, she would have been like pushing it, and shaking everyone’s hands and being really enthusiastic, and kind of playing the politician card more, and he definitely I don’t think played that at all,” says Almeida.

But unlike some other campaigns, Sanders’ did nothing to alert the media to his stop at the Riverwalk, and so images of Bernie congenially chatting with baristas weren’t on the evening news. 

Trick-or-Treating

This weekend, after a town hall meeting in Warner where he spoke of the need to decriminalize marijuana, Sanders moved out into the crowd. He’s all smiles, he poses for selfies, he admires – but doesn’t kiss – a baby.

But after walking through the crowd, it’s straight to the car… there’s another town-hall waiting.

It’s worth noting that Sanders did allow himself some frivolity this weekend. On Saturday, after speaking to over a thousand people in Lebanon, Sanders went trick-or-treating with his grand-children.

According to a reporter who was there, after about twenty minutes of fun, he signaled he was ready to move on to the next event, saying “Alright, we’re out of here,” to his aides.