On the Campaign Trail, Sanders Stand-Ins are Hard to Come By

Jan 22, 2016

Bernie Sanders at a rally in front of the New Hampshire Statehouse.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

At a Bernie Sanders campaign event at Southern New Hampshire University, environmentalist and author Bill McKibben introduced himself by saying, “I’m all that you have to endure for just a couple more minutes before the man himself arrives.”

  Rather self-effacing from the man who founded perhaps the largest international network of climate-change activists.

Bill McKibben spent Thursday traveling the state, to support fellow Vermonter Bernie Sanders.  He’s one of just a few to lend his fame to the senator’s campaign. 

That’s in contrast to Hillary Clinton, who has rolled out a parade of big names in the last few weeks--Chelsea and Bill Clinton, actress Lena Dunham and soccer star Abby Wambach.

For McKibben, who is also a Vermonter, the Sanders endorsement was a no-brainer.

His organization 350.org spearheaded the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline and Sen. Sanders was one of the first to oppose the project.

“Bernie was the only guy in D.C. who would help us, and he turned over parts of his office and staff,” McKibben explains, “People from all over the country did the work, but the one person in Washington who was with us from the beginning was Bernie.”

But What Do Voters Think

But while a McKibben endorsement might be meaningful to a certain kind of Democrat who checks off the environment as a top issue, for Bernie supporters writ large, it’s not clear what kind of cache he carries.

Lena Dunham speaks to a crowd at a Hillary Clinton campaign office in Manchester, NH on Jan. 8, 2016.
Credit Scott Eisen—Getty Images

“I wasn’t familiar at all with him. That was the first time I had heard of him,” says Jesse Hovey who came to see Sanders in Hooksett, “It was cool to learn who he was and what he’s doing, but I hadn’t heard of him previously.”

Sanders has a lot of things going for him right now: he’s leading in the polls in New Hampshire, huge numbers of people are donating to his campaign, and big crowds consistently show up wherever he goes. At least so far, though, only a few big names have come out to bat for him: Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s fame has campaigned with Sanders, and of course, there’s rapper Killer Mike.

It’s not always clear how much a celebrity campaigner actually helps.  A few months ago, then-candidate Lindsey Graham had the support of Sen. John McCain, a man who won the New Hampshire Primary, but it didn’t propel Graham forward.

But surrogates can keep candidates’ names in the local news as their schedules keep them away from the state.  And they can be more pointed in their remarks.  

Mckibben, for his part, says being an attack dog is not his role (“I’m not a really, negative guy in that sense”) though he can attract a reasonable group of college students when stopping at places like Dartmouth College and Keene State College.

But the real question remains, how much does any of this matter? How much do real voters pay any attention to endorsements, surrogates... the finer details of the campaigns?

Certainly Jesse Hovey just came because he wanted to hear from Sanders.

“You know, I teared up at a couple of points just to hear someone actually you know care so much about how things really are not play this politics game,” Hovey said after the SNHU event, “You know really care about the country, the people, the environment, everything. “

So while Killer Mike and Bill Mckibben might not draw the crowds Bill Clinton does, Bernie Sanders seems able can pack an auditorium just fine by himself.