Carrie Aldrich wasn’t sure whether she should speak up. The 46-year-old from Alden, Iowa, suffers from a combination of depression and anxiety, and hundreds of people filled the event hall. Dozens of members of the local and national media stood on a riser in the back of the hall, cameras trained on the stage. It was a lot to take in.
But when Bernie Sanders asked for volunteers to share their stories of living on $12,000 a year, she felt compelled to take the microphone.
What followed was one of the most emotional moments of any political event in the 2016 cycle thus far. She told Sanders -- and the crowd, and the cameras -- how she struggled to get by on “probably less” than the $12,000 figure Sanders threw out. How she couldn’t afford to buy presents for her daughter. How she worked “three, four, five jobs sometimes, always minimum wage,” despite having a college degree.
What she left unsaid at the time was that, now, she can’t work. The medication she takes for depression and anxiety affects her ability to work, and besides, working would invalidate her disability claim.
"You learn to get by with what you have," she said in an interview Wednesday. "And you learn how to fix things. You basically just learn how to survive."
Aldrich’s story left the Vermont senator and surging presidential candidate momentarily speechless. And the same was likely true for most people watching. But he eventually added, "It is not easy for people to stand up and say that, but the truth is that until millions of people who are experiencing what you guys are experiencing do say that, we don’t make change."
That brief exchange at an Iowa Falls, Iowa, rally on Monday provided a window into one of the centerpieces of Sanders’s campaign: Closing the wage gap between the rich and the poor.
Sanders wants to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour – more than double the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, set in 2009. Someone working 40 hours a week would make $31,200 before taxes on a $15-an-hour wage -- a substantial increase over the $15,080 they would pull in working for $7.25 an hour.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, calls for a $12-an-hour minimum wage, while Republican candidates are firmly against raising it. (Marco Rubio went as far as saying raising the minimum wage would be a "disaster" economically.)
This didn’t make the final piece but here’s how she thought other candidates might have reacted to her story pic.twitter.com/ZSXwUrT3Ma
— Dalton Bennett (@DDaltonBennett) January 27, 2016
Sanders has surged in both early primary state and national polls in recent weeks, in part because of his platform of economic change, especially for low-income Americans. "You can't live in dignity on $10,000 or less," he said. When Aldrich left the town hall event on Monday, the first thing she did was call her parents. She wanted to warn them that they might see her on TV and to apologize for “embarrassing” them. Little did she know, she’d soon get hundreds of messages of support from people who empathize with her situation -- one that is likely fairly common among minimum-wage workers.
The kind of emotional connection Aldrich made with Sanders -- and evidently with other voters, too -- can be rare. But as Fix boss Chris Cillizza wrote on Monday, it is extremely valuable.
"That's what I feel about their whole campaign," Aldrich said Wednesday, wearing a blue "Bernie for president" T-shirt. "With them, there's hope."
The Sanders campaign has thrived on excitement and large crowds -- especially with young people -- but will need to turn that excitement into votes once primaries begin. The more of an emotional connection Sanders makes with his supporters, the more of them are likely to turn out starting at Monday's caucuses.
Dalton Bennett contributed to this post.