As he scooped all the left-behind water bottles and "Bernie" pins and "Bernie" stickers into a clear plastic garbage bag, Matthew Perez thought, "that was pretty good."
A crowd of about 5,000 had just filed out of Hofheinz Pavilion Sunday night, after Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders spoke of fixing income inequality, reforming campaign finance, raising the minimum wage and making healthcare affordable and available to everyone, when Perez— who works on the arena's cleaning crew— said that something about the 73-year-old Senator from Vermont resonated with him.
"I have medical problems, and recently the hospital sent me home because I don't have insurance," Perez, 28, said as he cleared trash from beneath an empty row of seats. "So what he said about healthcare made sense to me. And he was right when he said the government doesn't care about people without any money."
Perez's reaction is just what Sanders is likely hoping for in visiting solid-red states like Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi and Texas— states typically ignored by Democratic candidates— as he tries to ride the nationwide wave of energetic support that has helped him surge up the polls to second place, closing the gap on heavy favorite Hillary Clinton. Clearly, Sanders' far-left economic populist message is making an impact. In Sunday's speech, Sanders said he has secured campaign contributions from "hundreds of thousands" of people— and, in keeping with one of Sanders' main campaign promises to remove big money from politics, he said the average contribution is $35.
And so far the self-described Democratic-Socialist has seen massive turnouts in the south— 12,000 in Phoenix on Saturday and 7,000 in Dallas earlier on Sunday. By comparison, when Clinton visited Houston a few weeks ago, she drew about 2,200.
Two hours before Sanders was scheduled to speak, supporters showed up to wait in line outside the arena, anticipating a big crowd. The big crowd came. A long line snaked through the piping-hot parking lot adjacent to Hofheinz, stretching all the way down the block to Scott Street.
"Bernie's for the people," Alex Sherwood said as he waited in line. He said he drove in from Waco to see Sanders in person, and was holding a hand-made green sign that said, "Feel the Bern."
"He's not super corporate, he's super environmental," Sherwood said. "He's a liberal for liberals. He's in Texas because he wants to break barriers. There are a lot of oppressed workers in Texas, a lot of people who don't vote. Texas used to be a blue state. I think it can be again."
Sanders came out to a near-capacity crowd. He spoke for a little over an hour, his gravely, Brooklyn-accented baritone noticeably hoarse but still booming.
"People ask me, why in God's name would you come to Texas?" Sanders shouted over cheering and applause to start his speech. "Yes, I know it's a conservative state, and that is exactly why I am here today. Today it's a conservative Republican state. But that doesn't mean it will be tomorrow."
The crowd skewed young, hip and white, and reacted reliably so, booing loudly each mention of Wall Street, NAFTA, Alan Greenspan, the Koch brothers, Citizens United, big banks and Jeb Bush, and cheering loudly each mention of Glass-Steagall, women's rights, sustainable energy, raising minimum wage, lowering college tuition, MSNBC, and making a difference.
There was a slight grumbling throughout the crowd when Sanders implored them each to "go outside your comfort zone" and speak with their Republican friends and co-workers, and "ask them if it makes sense to vote Republican."
Sanders said Democrats too often admit defeat in Southern states and pass them over while campaigning.
"We continue to have working class and low-income people voting against their own best interests," Sanders said. "We need a 50-state strategy. The simple truth is, we can't be the party which claims to represent poor, working class people and turn our backs on some of the poorest states in America."
Sanders' speech was big on passion but small on specific plans, though he did outline his strategies for some key issues— paying for free college education by taxing Wall Street speculation, implementing a federal jobs program to rebuild crumbling roads and bridges, and making any potential Supreme Court nominee promise to vote to overturn Citizens United.
"I think he has good ideas and a firm trajectory, but I'd like to hear more specific rhetoric," said 20-year-old Cameron Clark after the speech. "I care particularly about race issues and policing issues. He did a relatively good job of addressing that— he spoke the names of people [like Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray], but he could have been more specific about how he plans to address the problem."
Sanders' rise in popularity probably has as much to do with his fringe-status as his policy. He has always promoted himself as an outsider to politics, though until now he has never tested his personality on a platform as large as the one afforded to a presidential candidate. In an election headlined by dynastic front-runners like Clinton and Jeb Bush, only Sanders is known to his supporters firmly on a first-name basis— the result of a hugely successful branding effort that further separates Sanders from the ever-growing pack.
"The only way we can bring about real change is to create a political revolution," Sanders said toward the end of his speech, to raucous applause. "When we stand together and say, loudly and clearly, that this country belongs to all of us— that hungry kid in Texas, that single mom in Vermont, that postal worker in Connecticut— it belongs to all of us, not just the handful of billionaires who think it belongs only to them."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Sanders thanked the crowd and made his way off stage through a throng of rabid supporters stacked behind the railing, iPhones out, snapping pics. As he exited the arena's tunnel, dozens of outstretched hands extended desperately from the stands over the edge, trying to feel the Bern.
Meanwhile, people like Matthew Perez will likely remain the most coveted target of the Sanders campaign— people who are marginalized by society, don't vote, and, until now, didn't even know who Bernie Sanders was.
"He got my attention," Perez said. "I haven't voted in a while, but he's got my vote."