MADISON, Wis. — Bernie Sanders stood before 10,000 screaming fans in this liberal college town on Wednesday night and promised to fulfill all of their progressive dreams: paid vacation for all, generous maternity leave, tuition-free public colleges, a minimum wage of $15, no more big banks, less youth unemployment, dramatic prison reform and an end to economic inequality.
“Please, think big, not small,” Sanders said. “Our vision should be that in the wealthiest country in the history of the world there is nothing that we cannot accomplish.”
The crowd was the largest Sanders has seen since launching his long-shot presidential campaign in late May — and it far exceeded the expectations of some local Democrats who thought Sanders was aiming a bit high in booking an arena that could hold 10,000.
As Sanders spoke for more than an hour, his voice grew hoarse and at times he struggled to complete a sentence before the crowd cut him off with cheers or chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” Any mention of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was met with loud boos. This was, after all, the “People’s Republic of Madison” — a progressive college town where it’s often easier to find a local craft beer than a Bud Light.
The Wednesday night rally was one in a series that Sanders has hosted in states that are not key to winning the Democratic nomination but are known for quickly generating crowds of thousands.
“In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of people here,” Sanders said as he took the stage.
Sanders has been climbing in early polls but is still far behind Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. He also has yet to raise as much money as Clinton, whose campaign announced Wednesday that it has collected more than $45 million since April.
On the campaign trail, Clinton has mostly favored intimate gatherings away from the media, while Sanders has been trying to assemble the largest crowds that he can.
The cities he is picking — including previous stops in Denver and Minneapolis — are not located in key early primary states and often lack the racial diversity that is crucial for a Democrat to win the general election. But these cities are ripe with white progressives who are attracted to Sanders, a 73-year-old independent and self-described socialist with unruly white hair and a fiery disdain for anyone he believes is taking advantage of the underdog.
“He kind of has a base here already,” said Robert Hansen, 38, a Sanders supporter from the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield. “He’s always pretty sure to draw a crowd if he can come here.”
Madison has consistently delivered for other Democrats. When President Obama was first running for president, he visited Madison twice and was greeted by thousands. When Obama ran for reelection in 2012 and stumbled in the first televised debate with Mitt Romney, he immediately visited the University of Wisconsin at Madison — greeted by a crowd of 30,000. (Obama will be in La Crosse, Wis., on Thursday to talk about the economy.)
“People in Madison come out for political rallies much more so than in many, many other parts of the country,” said Cris Selin, 65, a Democrat who lives in Madison and volunteers for Clinton’s campaign. “I would challenge Senator Sanders to get nine [thousand] or 10,000 people out to a rally in New Hampshire, where it matters more.”
This week, organizers in Madison hung posters in downtown coffeehouses and restaurants listing Sanders’s priorities: get big money out of politics; deal with extreme wealth and income inequality; combat climate change; and make college education affordable. The posters state that they were “paid for by Bernie 2016 (not the billionaires).”
“I feel like Bernie is an honest politician,” said Trevor Triggs, 30, a state employee who lives in Madison and sat in the front row at the rally. “He’s someone I can believe in, which is pretty rare.”
Triggs said that he hadn’t heard of Sanders until recently and has never gotten this involved with a campaign, even donating 20 bucks out of his tight budget. The last time he felt this sort of a connection was when former Vermont governor Howard Dean (D) ran for president in 2004 on a similar progressive platform.
By venturing to Wisconsin’s capital city, Sanders immediately set himself up as a contrast to Walker, who is expected to announce his own presidential candidacy July 13.
The state Republican Party put up a billboard showing Clinton and Sanders on a scooter with this message: “Left and Lefter. Yesterday’s candidates — extreme policies.” Bernie responded to this this accusation by listing off Republican-backed policies that he says are more extreme, such as restricting access to birth control and abortion.
Walker welcomed Sanders to his state by tweeting: “We have one thing in common: neither of us wants another President Clinton.” Later in the night, Walker’s top political adviser Rick Wiley tweeted: “@HillaryClinton call your office (Brooklyn, not Manhattan). This is Bernie’s crowd in Madison.”
Walker’s popularity in statewide polls has fallen recently, but he has always been unpopular in this liberal enclave. That’s especially true now: Walker’s proposed budget calls for heavy cuts to the public university system, and he has complained about tenured professors not working hard enough for their salaries. Walker’s staff members learned years ago not to mention his name or “the governor” while out for dinner or drinks, lest their identities become known to Madisonians looking to debate.
Sanders is a regular guest on local progressive radio shows and has been to Wisconsin several times before — including a visit in 2011 after Walker led an effort to strip some public-sector unions of their bargaining power.
Throughout his speech on Wednesday night, Sanders told the crowd that this campaign is not about him. Instead, he said, it’s a grass-roots movement to redistribute wealth.
“I am more than aware that my opponents will be able to outspend us,” Sanders said. “We are going to win this election because if we do our job well, if we develop the grass-roots national movement that I know we can, at the end of the day, they may have the money, but we have the people.”