GREENSBORO, N.C. — “You all—did I get that right?” Bernie Sanders paused to wonder, mid-spiel. Then he corrected himself: “Y’all.”
“I’ll learn,” the Vermont senator promised to affectionate laughs. It was a perfect encapsulation of the challenge Sanders faces. Having gone from a fringe candidate to a serious contender for the Democratic nomination—leading Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire and gaining on her nationally—Sanders doesn’t cater to audiences with the smooth pandering and ersatz accents that more traditional politicians do. But if he is to convert his momentum into a nomination, he’ll have to learn to connect to people in places like the purple state in the South, and, in particular, to the black voters who form the Democratic Party’s backbone across the region.
Of course, the fact that he doesn’t do the things normal candidates do is what excites his fans, thousands of whom came to the Greensboro Coliseum to see Sanders Sunday night. They came from Durham and Salisbury, Winston-Salem and Walnut Cove, filling the venue to capacity. (The campaign said more than 9,000 people showed.) They drove in with new friends from their freshman dormitories or headed over from the National Folk Festival across town. While a few attendees said they were there to find more out about Sanders, many seemed to already be solidly committed to the self-described democratic socialist. And those came wearing campaign gear (one popular t-shirt bears an outline of Sanders’s glasses and famously unruly hair; another exhorts: “Join the political revolution today”). Attendees who didn’t come dressed for the occasion could purchase gear from vendors stalking the long, snaking line to get in, including a pin with Sanders’s face and the words “Not for sale.” (The candidate, to be clear, and not the button, which could be had for $2.)