Note: This story was originally published in the publication “Ithaca Week.”
By Kelsey McKim and Elizabeth Morris
Finger Lakes Running & Triathlon Company’s back room is split into two sections: one with extra gear and other storage, the other full of buttons, bumper stickers, pamphlets and yard signs neatly displayed on tables. It is all arranged with one goal in mind: supporting Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Ithaca and Tompkins County have been highly supportive of Sanders so far, and the group Ithaca and Tompkins County for Bernie Sanders is working to keep the trend going. Ithaca’s zip code (14850) ranks ninth nationally in campaign contributions to the Vermont senator, with $11,470 raised. This figure is based on Federal Election Commission data released Aug. 3 of individual contributions of $200 or more. Campaign donations are only one indicator of support for a candidate, however.
“From the get-go there was this huge response,” said Will Fudeman about Bernie’s popularity in the area. Fudeman has been involved with the steering committee. “Commonly with these sorts of campaigns, there might be three or four people who might be carrying most of the weight, and, I don’t know, there’s like more than a dozen really active people, and people keep stepping up.”
Past racks of leggings, sports bras, and other running attire lies the temporary office space of the group. To get to the “campaign headquarters,” volunteers walk into the store under a banner proclaiming “Bernie: Join the Political Revolution!”
At steering committee meetings, about 15 volunteers gather in this room to plan tabling events, canvassing and other strategies for the campaign. Many volunteers began campaigning for Sanders independently, but quickly merged their efforts to create a unified group. The group is not formally associated with the official Bernie 2016 campaign, according to Becky Chambers Hennessy, a member of the steering committee.
The group has seen a large amount of support for Sanders in the area at campaign events, and according to an article by the Ithaca Voice, Bernie Sanders has raised three times as much in campaign funds from Ithaca as any other presidential candidate.
According to FEC data, 31 people from the 14850 zip code donated a total of $11,120 to the Sanders presidential campaign between April 30 and June 30. In comparison, the next-largest recipient of donations, Hillary Clinton, received $3,460 from 8 people in the same zip code between April 13 and June 28. FEC donor reports are generated quarterly.
Origin of Tompkins County Support for Sanders.
Origin of Tompkins County Support for Sanders
Tompkins County consistently supports progressive candidates, according to Don Beachler, associate professor of politics at Ithaca College. In the 2008 Democratic primary, it was the only county in New York to vote for Obama over the less-progressive Hillary Clinton.
The overall support for Sanders in the area is considered a continuation of this progressive worldview. Hennessy explained the personal reasons why she is one of many locals who support the Vermont senator.
“I realized immediately when I saw him come on the horizon that I’ve been settling and I’ve voted over the course of many elections, settling until now,” Hennessy said. “A lot of people feel that way.”
Hennessy said Sanders’ policies on health care, labor and the environment are key issues that attract local residents to his platform. Healthcare is one of Sanders’ most well-known campaign platforms; the senator supports “enacting a Medicare for all single-payer health care system.”
“Here in Tompkins County, we’re among the pioneers of the living wage movement,” said Joe Lawrence, a local “Labor for Bernie” organizer. “Bernie is the only candidate to flat-out say, ‘Fifteen bucks an hour,’ and he’s not tap-dancing around that.”
The concentration of highly-educated citizens in the area is another factor in local support for the Sanders campaign.
“Ithaca has an educated electorate,” said Alex Skutt, co-treasurer of the local campaign. “You roll a bowling ball down The Commons and you hit Ph.D.’s.”
Beachler said that education levels correlate to voter turnout.
“Education across the country is highly coordinated with voting: the more education you have, the more likely you are to vote,” said Beachler.
Because voter turnouts tend to be low across the country, this trend skews elections, especially primary elections (which have the lowest turnout rates), toward candidates favored by highly-educated voters.
Until recently, much of the group’s focus has been on courting independents or members of other parties to switch their registration to Democrat. New York State has a closed primary, which means only people registered with a party can vote in that party’s primary. In an open primary, voters of any affiliation can vote in one party’s primary.
The last day for voters to switch party affiliation was Oct. 9, and the group is now focusing on registering new voters, especially students, for the April 19 Democratic primary.
“Seeing people like Bernie Sanders that push the envelope to the left are really interesting for me,” said Charlotte Granison, who attended a debate screening hosted by the group. “Whether or not people determine him as electable, we’re seeing this movement, we’re seeing a broader expanse of ideas, and I think that’s really powerful.”