It seems appropriate that Bernie Sanders finished his latest swing through South Carolina on the campus of Winthrop University on Saturday.
The 74-year-old senator from Vermont, a 25-year veteran of Congress, has become a favorite of younger voters in the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
Thousands lined up outside Byrnes Auditorium before the doors opened at 6:30 p.m. The venue for the event had been changed from the West Center to accommodate a crowd larger than initially expected. Byrnes has seating for 3,500, and organizers estimated about 3,000 supporters attended.
Lines of college students, along with a few not-so-young voters, snaked around the block, bracketed by blue “Bernie for President” signs.
For some, the candidate’s appearance was an educational opportunity just like any other on campus. Most students, like Annalee Bell, will be voting in their first-ever presidential election.
“We want to be able to get involved and be informed about who we’re voting for,” Bell said.
“I heard he’s not doing the super PAC thing,” freshman Cheyenne Walsh interjected, noting Sanders’ reliance on small donations – rather than large special interest contributions – to fund his campaign, “which I think is a good thing.”
This was Sanders’ second swing through South Carolina since he announced his plans to seek the Democratic nomination, after an unlikely political career spent as an independent and self-described socialist.
Sanders initially was considered a long shot against frontrunner and heir apparent Hillary Clinton, but recent polling has shown the senator nine points ahead of the former secretary of state in New Hampshire and virtually tied with her in Iowa.
But even as she stumbles in national polls, Clinton has maintained a strong lead in South Carolina, home of the first Southern primary and the last of the key early primary states.
Part of Sanders’ appeal to young people might be his call to make public colleges tuition-free, as they already are in many countries in Europe, a continent Sanders routinely says does a better job of providing its citizens with a strong social safety net through higher taxes and expansive government programs.
To a generation facing an increasing burden of student loan debt, that sounds like a pretty good deal.
“That’s very appealing,” Bell said. “I’m going to have to pay off debt for a long time. If you don’t have parents to pay for it, it can be very hard.”
“I basically support everything he says, mostly the free college idea,” said student Dejah Smith. “That would be absolutely amazing; there is so much stress involved” in student loans.
Sanders would pay for a free college education through a transaction tax on Wall Street speculators and hedge funds, he said Saturday. Sanders also has made criminal justice reform a priority. The United States spends more money – about $50 billion annually – putting more people behind bars than are incarcerated in any other country in the world, he said.
Saturday’s rally also attracted some older voters, like Rose Schwietert, but even she said this was the first political event she’s ever attended.
“I like his message,” Schwietert said. “Jobs for the middle class, college help for students. The middle class is being left out, and students too. That’s the main message.”
Many of Sanders’ supporters expressed a belief that he could actually knock off Clinton and win the nomination, maybe even the White House.
“Oh yeah, you see all these people?” Smith said of the crowd waiting to get into Byrnes Auditorium. “I’m 90 percent sure (he can win).”
Sanders’ biggest handicap, Schwietert said, is that “he’s not that well-known outside of New England,” but the thousands who turned out for Saturday’s rally impressed her.
“I’m kind of surprised it’s as big as it is,” she said. “His numbers are growing.”