It is early evening on Nov. 17. In Room 120 of Stanford’s Old Union, a handful of students sit around a table, calling voters across the states of Iowa and Nevada. Scattered around the room are hand-painted rally signs made by students and bearing various slogans — “GET $ OUT OF POLITICS,” “STOP CLIMATE CHANGE,” “DEMILITARIZE THE POLICE.” One student hunches over his computer, saying into his phone, “Good evening, I’m a volunteer for Bernie Sanders’s campaign…”
Stanford for Bernie, a Stanford student group, arranged the call center event in support of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Though a number of candidates from both major parties enjoy some support from the student body, Stanford for Bernie is a loose collective of students that has formed behind its titular candidate, and has dedicated a lot of time to getting the word out about Sanders’s campaign.
The Iowa caucus is on Feb. 1, but Stanford for Bernie is wasting no time mobilizing supporters. Week nine of the quarter is a busy time for Stanford students — despite being active for two hours, only four students showed up to participate in the phone bank.
One of these students is Stanford for Bernie’s founder, Carla Genai ’17. Despite the quiet turnout, Genai showed excitement and not disappointment.
“[The turnout] suggests that there are many more supporters and potential volunteers on campus that we have yet to meet,” Genai said.
The other students in the room spoke of what led them to put their faith in Sanders’s campaign.
“He’s consistent,” said Stevan Jeknic, a graduate student. “There [are] a lot of politicians who say things that I agree with, but Bernie’s one of the few people who I actually trust will do something about it and work towards those goals.
Another student, Hormazd Godrej ’18, said that he was drawn to Sanders’s “authenticity — the fact that he stands up for what he believes in.”
“Whatever views he puts forward, even if I don’t agree with them, they are his views and not views that are being put on him by corporate donors,” Godrej added.
Beyond Stanford, Sanders has a way with young voters and social media. His Facebook page has nearly 2 million likes, almost 200,000 more than rival Hillary Clinton’s. People following Sanders express their support using the #FeelTheBern hashtag, a pun off his first name.
“Despite being…what is he, 72 years old?” Genai asked (Sanders is 74). “He still doesn’t feel like the establishment, and I think that’s really exciting and refreshing,” Genai said.
Starting a support group at Stanford
The phone bank was not the first event hosted by Stanford for Bernie, nor was it their first phone bank. Since the beginning of the school year, Stanford for Bernie has held about 10 events — phone banks, rallies, debate watch parties — aimed at engaging Stanford students.
Genai admitted that she “initially was not a huge Bernie fan” upon first hearing about him, supporting Clinton early in the race. But the more Genai heard about Sanders, the more she began to favor Sanders.
“If a candidate can be Bernie, why would I vote for Hillary?” she said.
A summer internship in New York brought Genai into contact with a friend involved in Columbia University’s Columbia for Bernie. Inspired to create a similar group at Stanford, Genai founded Stanford for Bernie on Sept. 6, 2015. It is not an official Stanford student group, but rather a Facebook page, which has 176 likes as of Jan. 10. Genai said that 72 students have registered as volunteers and signed up to be on the group’s mailing list.
“The campaign really is relying on grassroots effort[s],” Genai said. “It’s really impressive to see that there are still a number of dedicated students.”
Stanford is not the only college whose students have created a “for Bernie” Facebook page. The Stanford for Bernie Facebook page has liked similar pages from Brown, Duke, Yale, Harvard and Columbia, which shares a page with Barnard.
Stanford for Bernie’s co-leader is doctoral student Gregg Sparkman. Sparkman was politically active over the summer, involving himself with local volunteer events after Sanders’s campaign took off. When the school year started, Sparkman looked into what was going on with the Sanders campaign at Stanford.
“There was an organizers’ meeting that was on the Stanford campus,” Sparkman said. “When the fall came around, I met with some people who were interested in doing events and things like that on campus.”
On Oct. 8, Stanford for Bernie held one of their first events — a phone bank for New York voters. Although the New York primary will not be held until April, the deadline for that state’s voters to register as Democrats was Oct. 9. Since only registered Democrats can vote for Democratic candidates, Stanford for Bernie was urgently trying to convert as many voters as possible before the deadline.
“Primaries are a huge deal, and keeping that registration deadline in mind is really important to get people registered and talking about it as soon as possible,” Genai said. “If he were to get even twice the turnout that usually comes to primaries, we would win.”
Stanford for Bernie tends to focus more on local events that engage students. For the two Democratic debates, Stanford for Bernie held viewing parties; the watch party for the Nov. 14 debate was organized by Kathryn Treder ’18 and held in Columbae. While Stanford for Bernie did not get a specific count of how many people were in attendance, Genai said that Columbae’s lounge, which normally holds 45 people, was so full that it “had people sitting on the floor.”
Even people from the nearby communities came out to see the debate, Treder said.
“I feel that our mission statement is more toward not only informing students on campus about Bernie and why he’s so great and why we love him so much but also…to promote Bernie to people outside the community,” Treder said.
Nov. 17 was a busy day for Stanford for Bernie. Shortly after the phone bank ended, the group participated in a student-led presidential debate alongside three recognized political groups: Stanford Democrats argued for Hillary Clinton; the Stanford Conservative Society (SCS) represented general Republican viewpoints; and the International Socialist Organization’s (ISO’s) Stanford chapter supported Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. Sparkman represented Stanford for Bernie, and before the debate he expressed his thoughts about how it would go.
“Maybe people are excited about Bernie, but they don’t know if he could get elected; maybe people aren’t sure what the differences between Hillary and Bernie are,” Sparkman said. “Maybe people really want to see deep-seated change, but they don’t know if going through the leverage and change that we have, like voting for president, can get that accomplished.”
The road to the nomination
Hillary Clinton is leading the polls, as she was at this time eight years ago. RealClearPolitics reported that Clinton had a wide lead as of Jan. 4, 2016, polling about 21 points above the runner-up, Bernie Sanders. That same date in 2008, Clinton had a 20-point lead over Barack Obama. However, Obama’s poll numbers surged in mid-January and eclipsed Clinton’s by early February.
By June, the Democratic Party will have most likely settled on its nominee. Of course, Stanford’s academic school year ends in June too — which leaves Stanford for Bernie about six months to continue its crusade. Over that time span, Stanford for Bernie intends to set up a table in White Plaza and engage passerby. Sparkman suggested that Stanford for Bernie could help tune bikes, but also added that someone expressed interest in drawing caricatures of students posing with Sanders.
Another plan involves tapping into Stanford’s long-standing rivalry with UC Berkeley.
“We’re actually going to start a competition with Cal where we’re going to try and register more voters than they will,” Sparkman said.
Given Berkeley’s size relative to Stanford — twice as many students with nearly four times as many undergrads — Sparkman explained that the contest would probably be proportional rather than numerical.
Stanford for Bernie is one of many national organizations that seek to mobilize as many voters as possible to support Sanders. Sparkman listed a number of organizations on state, regional and local levels: Californians for Bernie, Bay Area for Bernie, Silicon Valley for Bernie, Palo Alto for Bernie.
Since Stanford for Bernie is not an official student group registered with Stanford, fundraising through the school is a complicated affair, Genai explained. However, she said that they are trying to establish a relationship with the Silicon Valley for Bernie group, which can potentially offer some financial support. Stanford for Bernie wants to make a weekend trip or two to Reno to campaign before the Nevada caucus on Feb. 20, a trip that Stanford for Bernie does not have the means to make on its own.
For Genai, the support system between Sanders’s support groups is an essential part of his campaign, as well as something for Stanford for Bernie to be thankful for.
“We’ve become part of this larger community for Bernie, which is nice,” Genai said. “We’re more than just the students of Stanford for Bernie.”
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.