PETERBOROUGH — Flanked by Ben & Jerry’s ice cream founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders filled the Peterborough Town House Monday afternoon with his signature pitches, some new rhetorical tactics and few surprises.
The campaign counted more than 800 voters in attendance at the Labor Day rally, which was Sanders’ second visit to the Monadnock Region this cycle after speaking at The Colonial Theatre in Keene in March.
This time, what was billed as an ice cream social with Ben and Jerry in a Grove Street park ended up being a more standard rally held inside the nearby Town House as rain pattered down on a line of voters stretching down the road.
The Vermont ice-cream founders still introduced Sanders, starting a “Bernie beats Trump” chant, but there were no dairy desserts to be found in the main hall of the Town House.
On the one hand, the independent U.S. senator from Vermont was in vintage form, delivering messages he has become known for over decades in politics — increasing taxes on the rich, creating a single-payer health care system, taking on corporate interests to lessen income inequality — but some voters said they also saw some changes in the self-described democratic socialist.
Tal Gregory and Heidi Tompkins of Hancock volunteered for Sanders the last time around in 2016 and have stuck with him, sporting navy blue volunteer stickers on a dreary Labor Day afternoon in Peterborough, with the campaign logo unchanged.
Upon seeing Sanders for the second time in person, Gregory and Tompkins said they were happy to see how much he’s stuck with his principles, but believe Sanders has found a better way to connect with voters.
“I just feel like the way that he is relating to the crowd, to people, he realizes that now it’s about talking to us — not just preaching what his message is — but really interacting,” Tompkins, 49, said after the rally.
“He’s evoking emotion and being emotional now, which is different,” Gregory, also 49, chimed in. “Because before, he was just kind of hitting the points and saying the things, and now I feel like he’s emoting ... which is really important for a politician.”
Sanders, who did not take questions from voters or reporters while in Peterborough, engaged the crowd with call-and-response prompts, such as asking how much their insurance deductibles are.
When one woman told the senator her deductible is $10,000, he replied, “In other words, you don’t have insurance. You’re a statistic that says you’re insured, but that doesn’t mean you can go to the doctor or a hospital when you need to go.”
A few minutes later, another woman told Sanders she pays a $360 monthly premium to Medicare.
“We’re gonna end that as well,” Sanders told the voter, standing only a few yards from her. “You’re not gonna pay that anymore.”
Jim Van Valkenburgh, 66, of Peterborough said he was glad to see the same Bernie return, but added that he also saw some improvements in Sanders’ stump speech.
“I also think he’s got a better, or maybe just a new — a new emphasis, a new, what do you wanna call it? — he’s consolidated the issues in a way that’s relevant to today,” Van Valkenburgh said. “It’s just updated.”
While Van Valkenburgh said he supported Sanders in the 2016 New Hampshire primary, he remains in the “shopping around” phase enjoyed by many Granite Staters at this point in an election cycle.
Sanders drew not only longstanding loyalists and other progressives to the rally, but also at least one Trump supporter.
“I wanted to come and see [Sanders] to give him a fair chance,” Jeannie Samuelson, 72, of Rindge, said on her way out of the town house.
Samuelson said this was her first 2020 presidential campaign event, and came away with what she described as a better understanding of the other side.
While she said she remained firm in her support of Trump, the Sanders rally led her to realize she did not know as much as she thought about progressive voters or the senator himself beyond how he’s portrayed on TV, such as his support for a single-payer, Medicare for All health care plan.
“Nobody knows everything,” she said. “I think it’s a feeling of what’s important for you.”
Sanders also drew a contrast with his opponents by bragging about the enemies he claims to have made in big business, defining his campaign, at times, by antagonism rather than, as others running for the Democratic nomination have, a message of bringing a polarized country together.
“You can tell about somebody, not just who his friends are or her friends are, but who are the people who hate them,” Sanders said before drawing another round of applause. “So I am proud to tell you that the leaders of Wall Street, and the drug companies, and the fossil fuel industry, hate me very much.”
Tompkins was quick to say after the rally that she believes Sanders’ messaging is only antagonistic for those in the top 1 percent of income earners.
Mary Lou O’Neil, 68, of Hancock said she feels Sanders has been on this message for long enough that he deserves more credit as the party adopts versions of many of his ideas, particularly Medicare for All.
“He’s a known quantity, and he doesn’t change,” O’Neil said.
While O’Neil noted she has yet to decide who she’ll support, she argued that Sanders deserves deference from Democrats for how long he has fought for his principles.
As for whether anything jumped out at her from the rally, O’Neil laughed.
“No,” she chuckled. “He has no surprises.”