Jairo Zapata, a young Democrat, started out a Hillary Clinton supporter. It was easy to be one. He knew about her, her husband and his presidency. Then he heard of Bernie Sanders.
His friends at college were full of Sanders. But Zapata said he was not impressed, so he set about researching him. And he was soon hooked – “loved him”. He is a staunch Sanders supporter now.
The 19-year-old stood among a raucous bunch of students outside the Democratic debate venue at Miami Dade College here on Wednesday in support of the 74-year-old candidate.
Inside, Sanders tried to build on his surprise win in Tuesday’s Michigan primary, called the most significant upset in the recent history of US presidential elections.
“We have come a long way in 10 months,” Sanders said, referring to the initial response to his candidacy, mostly indulgent derision, with a nod to his polls.
Sanders is now a serious candidate whose renegade campaign funded by small donations is posing a serious challenge to the front-runner, who once had a lock on the nomination.
“I believe that our message of the need for people to stand up and tell corporate America and Wall Street that they cannot have it all is resonating across this country,” he said at the debate.
Sanders has won nine of the Democratic nominating contests so far to Clinton’s 12, and trails her 566 to 1,215 in the count of delegates, with 2,383 being the target.
But, he has argued, those numbers tell a happy story.
And buoyed by the Michigan victory, Sanders clashed with Clinton at the debate on immigration, the 2008 bailouts and her links to Wall Street, reprising mostly old differences.
Sanders, a most untypical presidential candidate, has caught the imagination of a section of Democrats who find hope in his message, strength in his consistency and faith in his humility.
They are mostly white, young and blue-collar workers, and not unlike those backing Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner who cannot be more different than Sanders.
Brian Crowley, a long-time political writer, said Sanders and Trump are backed by similar voters who feel disenfranchised and hurt by a bad economy, separated only by issues.
Except one: Their opposition to free trade agreements, which according to both have invariably led to job losses. Trump likes to hammer China and Mexico for it.
Sanders’s opposition to it was crucial to his victory in Michigan, as he was able to successfully link job losses in the state to trade agreements Clinton supported, before opposing them.
There is also a touch of counter-culture to his campaign built around his support for legalising marijuana, a popular issue with left-leaning college-goers.
Adrian Hernandez, 20, was unable to recall any of Sanders’s policies that he supports — “I don’t remember right now,” he said sheepishly — but added he likes the way he talks.
Jose Rekut, 25, went to Sanders because he didn’t like Trump. When asked about Clinton, he shrugged, “Yeaaaa …but went with Bernie.”
Zapata had a better explanation: Sanders’ promise of free public college, support for marijuana legalisation, and, above all, his “history of being consistent, unlike Clinton”.
But despite the surprise win in Michigan, which forced Sanders to take another look at Florida, a state he had given up on earlier, his supporters are not sure he will bag the nomination.
“I don’t think he will win,” said Eddie Balon, an older man who joined the students outside the debate venue. “But he would have at least changed the conversation.”