On Wednesday evening, gathered in the back of Redmond’s Ale House in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, about 35 people watched Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders deliver a short and impassioned speech, streamed from the web onto a half-dozen flat screen TVs hanging above.
The gathering was one of more than 3,000 organizing events occurring simultaneously across the country – in pubs, coffee shops, and private residences – as the self-described democratic socialist sought to rally early support for his campaign to be the Democratic nominee for president.
“Forty percent of people don’t even know who he is yet,” said Nicole Barba of Uptown, one of the event’s co-organizers. “People would believe in his message as long as they know who he is, because he’s talking about issues everyone is affected by.”
Speaking via live video broadcasting from a supporter’s apartment in Washington DC, Sanders highlighted some of his campaign’s top priorities, including reducing the gap in income inequality, raising the minimum wage, eliminating tuition at public colleges, reversing the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and establishing a single-payer universal healthcare system, amongst others.
Roberto Cruz Olivera, a Loyola student living in Wrigleyville, said he attended the event on a whim on the advice of his roommate. He was particularly drawn to Sanders’ comments on America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“I think it’s amazing that he’s bringing the issue of immigration into the forefront with his speech because that’s something that I’ve been personally affected with as a Mexican-American,” Olivera said.
“Obviously I’m a citizen here, but I have a lot of friends I’ve worked with that don’t have the proper documentation or are essentially illegal immigrants,” Olivera continued. “And they’re really hard working people. They walk and talk just like normal Americans. But they have to live in the shadows.”
When asked what inspired her to co-host the event at Redmond’s, Barba said that she and fellow organizer Eric Anders had been following Sanders’ Senate career for the past couple of years, hoping and waiting for him to declare his candidacy so they could volunteer.
“One thing that made us want to start our own event is that all the other events in the area were already maxed out,” Barba said. “I think that shows that there’s a lot of interest in Bernie.”
The sheer number of attendees at many of Sanders’ events is noteworthy. In addition to the events held on July 29, Sanders has drawn large crowds at recent speeches across the country: 4,000 in Louisiana, 11,000 in Arizona, and 15,000 in Texas, according to his campaign.
By comparison, Hillary Clinton’s campaign simulcast her remarks at her June kickoff rally to just over 650 launch parties – about a fifth of the number of Sanders events hosted on Wednesday.
But Clinton is still the clear frontrunner. She has out-raised Sanders in campaign contributions by at least threefold – $47 million to Sanders’ $15.1 million – and holds a significant advantage in the most recent national polls, leading Sanders by an average of 40 percentage points.
Luis Federico, a 24-year-old from Uptown, thinks there’s plenty of time between now and the Democratic primaries for Sanders to close the gap.
“I think he can 100% give Hillary a run for her money,” Federico said. “If Bernie doesn’t make it I will probably go for Hillary but it’s going to be tough.”
Federico said that today’s political climate makes Sanders’ ambitious goals seem less realistic when compared to the message delivered by Clinton.
“I think eventually we will reach everything Bernie is vying for but it will take a longer time,” he said. “Hillary’s going to have to take some of those messages that Bernie’s putting out and she’s going to have to include them in her campaign to some extent. And I think that is a victory in its own.”
Although most of the crowd at Redmond’s looked under 30, Olivera – who is 23 – said he spoke with attendees of a variety of ages and backgrounds.
“He’s just bringing together so many people from so many different walks of life,” Olivera said of Sanders. “I just had a conversation with an older gentleman that’s lived in Chicago for the last 60 years. And it’s amazing just to get perspectives – like politically, socially, things that are going on in the city.”
“It’s truly – I believe – a grassroots movement that’s happening right now. And it’s exciting to see where it goes.”