When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announced he would be coming to the Eugene area for the first time in his 2016 campaign, it was difficult to predict what his tone or the reaction of his supporters would be.
Sure, he is comfortably favored to win the Oregon presidential primary according to recent polls, and he has a lot of support from young voters, many of whom at today’s speech were University of Oregon students.
But just two days have passed since he lost four out of five primary elections and laid off hundreds of campaign staffers. Hillary Clinton only needs about 700 of the roughly 1,000 delegates left at stake, which doesn’t factor in her 520 projected super-delegates, to clinch the Democratic nomination.
At around 12:30 p.m. today, though, when Sanders crossed over a small bridge, into the park and onto the stage, he received an ovation fit for a conquering hero. Some of the many UO students who joined the 8,000-person crowd said they were excited to hear Sanders despite the recent string of losses.
One of the major reasons younger voters support Sanders is due to his plan for free college tuition. When Sanders asked crowd members to raise their hands if they ever needed to pay off a student debt, over half of the crowd raised their hands.
“We should not be punishing people for getting an education,” Sanders said. “We should be rewarding them.”
Sanders also discussed other topics currently weighing on younger voters’ minds. He mentioned that millennials may be the first generation in decades to have a lower standard of living than their parents, how youth unemployment contributes to higher incarceration rates and decriminalizing marijuana.
“That is called the American dream. Parents work hard so their kids can do better,” Sanders said.
Makaela Kroin, a UO graduate folklore student who volunteered at the rally, said she hasn’t been able to volunteer as much as she had hoped because she’s been working on her thesis. When the last-minute announcement came yesterday, she jumped on the opportunity.
“I’m grateful that he at least had time to come to [the Eugene area] once,” Kroin said.
Today’s event was not the first Sanders rally a member of Kroin’s family was able to attend. Her younger sister, an Indiana University student who Kroin said is typically not politically active, saw Sanders’ rally yesterday on her university’s campus.
“I feel like the other candidates are disconnected from the people,” Kroin said. “It’s amazing that there’s a candidate that young people are excited about.”
Though he says the recent string of losses put a damper on his support, Nathaniel Mills — a freshman pre-business major at the UO — said he hopes Sanders’ campaign will shift the Democratic Party toward more progressive positions at its July convention.
Sanders also addressed some of his top issues — like campaign finance reform, Wall Street regulation, income inequality and revoking “disastrous” international trade deals.
At the rally, Sanders only mentioned the Democratic Party front-runner, Clinton, twice. He mentioned how polls have him beating Republican front-runner Donald Trump by wider margins than Clinton in the general election. He also invoked her name when challenging her environmental policies.
He attacked Republican candidates early and often, once saying that, “It is hard to see anyone supporting that agenda.”
He offered a critique of the Democratic Party as well.
“Are we on the side of working people or big money interests?” he asked rhetorically.
Before, during and after the hour-long speech, roughly 60 volunteers collected almost 500 signatures for people looking to volunteer ahead of the May 17 Oregon primary election, volunteer coordinator Nicholas Engel said.
Now that voter registration for the state’s primary is complete, the Lane County for Bernie Sanders organization will shift its focus from registering Democratic voters to convincing local voters to choose their candidate, Engel said. Its goal is to have Sanders win 85 percent of Democratic votes in Lane County.
Despite the long odds, Engel said he still believes his candidate is aiming for the nomination.
“I put in 85 to 90 hours a week for this,” he said. “I wouldn’t be putting in that time if I didn’t think there was a path to the nomination.”
Follow Jack Heffernan on Twitter @JackTHeffernan