"Who is winning the young vote?" director, screenwriter, and Shawshank escapee Tim Robbins shouted at a large crowd of Bernie Sanders supporters packed into Washington Square Park on Wednesday. If you hadn't looked at any polling data and were deciding based on the enthusiastic crowd, the many ukuleles and "Feel the Bern" signs, and the woman with the pin fashioned like the Pabst Blue Ribbon label that instead read, “Bernie Fucking Sanders," you'd have to conclude that, yes, it was Bernie fucking Sanders who was winning the young vote.
It’s been clear throughout the campaign trail that many millennials support Sanders—at least online. The man would have already won the election if it were decided on memes alone. (In states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan, he’s captured over at least 80 percent of voters, age 18 to 29.) But at the rally ahead of Tuesday's New York primary, throngs of young people overwhelmed the Manhattan park in real life to see the Brooklyn-born candidate speak. (He’s also made appearances in Brooklyn and the Bronx.) As the state polls show Sanders trailing behind Hillary Clinton, the question is whether these efforts will be reflected next week.
The crowd resembled an amplified college quad, with more than 27,000 supporters (by the count of the Sanders campaign) overflowing from the park at the center of NYU's campus and into the surrounding blocks long before the gates opened at 5 p.m. and well into the night. A man on one corner composed poems on his typewriter for supporters waiting to get inside, and on another several women sold screenprints emblazoned with "Peace, Love, and Bernie Sanders" that were handmade in Brooklyn. Men with guitars and accordions sang songs like "Run Bernie Run" as onlookers filmed for social media. "I’m so glad I’m high for this," another woman turned and told her friend in the packed crowd inside the park as they lit up their second joint of the night.
The young people attending were not just there because the rally took place in NYU’s backyard: many came from Brooklyn, Queens, and even out of state to see the candidate speak, like Adam Heskin, 24, who flew into New York City from North Dakota—which will not hold its caucuses until June—just for the event.
"This is the first time I’ve been involved in politics," he said. "I’ve had the opportunity to vote before, but I didn’t, because I didn’t feel that our voices were ever heard—they didn’t talk about things that were things that I cared about. But this is one I actually believe in."
This was also the case for Rodrigo Sanchez, 35, who is originally from Mexico but now resides in Astoria, Queens. He said in the past he voted for candidates based on party lines (or in President Barack Obama’s case, because the candidate was black), but now he feels genuinely passionate about the issues. He’s been canvassing for Sanders in recent weeks and helping with the campaign.
"Up until not that long ago, I didn’t care enough to make a really educated choice," he said. "Now people are aware of what’s happening and cutting through the nonsense and making better decisions for the betterment of all of us, not just themselves or a certain group of people."
With indie bands like Vampire Weekend and Grizzly Bear performing at Sanders rallies this week, it’s clear he is trying hard to gather some Cool Candidate votes, but very little of that has translated to real support. Sanders just secured his first senator endorsement on Wednesday (Clinton has 40 of 44 under her belt), and he lags behind Clinton by 220 pledged delegates.
Still, for younger voters like 24-year-old Aviva Oskow, originally from the Midwest, his outreach is working. She said that Sanders has "an amazing social media game" and relates to young people more naturally than Clinton.
"You see other people who are excited about it, and you get excited, too," she said. "There are parties and people are getting excited about real things, which is really exciting and draws other people in. I think people feel that he is not about bullshit, and people don’t want to be lied to anymore."
Oskow said she was drawn to Sanders due to her student loan debt––the candidate has promised tuition-free colleges and universities. Sanders did not address this during the speech, instead focusing on his often-repeated bullet points on "corporate greed" and desire to take on Wall Street. The crowd didn’t seem to mind as he regurgitated the same core points he’s hammered on about throughout his campaign, laughing along as Sanders cracked the same joke about how Clinton’s Wall Street speeches "must be amazing" if she is getting paid $225,000 for them. One man behind me literally recited the line with Sanders, he’d heard it so many times.
"What this campaign is profoundly about is understanding that real change never occurs from the top down, but the bottom up," Sanders told the crowd. It responded with booming cheers.
The night was not without controversy: Guest speaker Dr. Paul Song, a health care advocate, drew heavy criticism for characterizing Clinton as a "corporate Democratic whore," leaving Sanders to apologize for the "inappropriate and insensitive" comment.
This is not the first time Sanders has had to scramble to apologize for accusations of sexism directed at his supporters and allies. The rally appeared mildly male-dominated, and it was clear progressive men aren’t immune to discriminatory and dismissive behavior. Earlier in the night, Oskow explained that she would still vote for Clinton if Sanders loses the nomination because she does not want to see Republican candidates Ted Cruz or Donald Trump take away her right to choose, at which point a middle-aged male Sanders supporter began to scream over her about Planned Parenthood. The rally featured speeches from union members as well as director Spike Lee, musician Graham Nash, and actress Rosario Dawson, and the men standing next to me repeatedly asked, "Why is she still talking?" during a speech given by racial justice activist Linda Sarsour, whose voice they said "sounded like Clinton’s."
As the primary approaches, Sanders has remained optimistic despite the polls. "I think that if we have a large voter turnout on Tuesday, we are going to win this thing," he said.
A loss in New York would be fairly devastating to the candidate’s run for president. Sanders and his supporters stressed several times during the rally that New York’s is a closed primary, meaning only those registered as Democrat can vote. Sanders has traditionally done well with Independents in the past.
Even if Sanders does win New York (and the polls aren’t looking great), it would be an uphill battle to catch up with Clinton’s nearly 200-delegate lead, but the Vermont senator stressed his momentum in the event.
"When I look at an unbelievable crowd like this I believe we're going to win here in New York," he said.
All photos by Tyler Strachan.