It was well past lunch on a highway in California near the start of Memorial Day weekend, and the reporters on the Bernie Sanders press van were basically begging their handler for some downtime. Maybe after the next event we could swing by the hotel, they asked the press aide. And to each other they wondered, Doesn’t this 74-year-old ever get tired?
But there is rarely time for a break in the Sanders campaign, as staffers and reporters follow a candidate who doesn’t ever seem to slow down. His opponents might consider the relentless pace a metaphor — why doesn’t he just stop running already? But the Vermont senator is currently barnstorming California, a delegate-rich state he sees as his last hope to slow Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination. On this holiday weekend when Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, had scheduled just one public event and Hillary Clinton, the most likely Democratic nominee, had nothing public on her schedule, Sanders held one rally after another, interspersed with TV appearances. Ventura, Pomona, and Jimmy Kimmel on Thursday; Long Beach, Inglewood, the Young Turks and Bill Maher on Friday; Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Bakersfield on Saturday; Visalia and Fresno on Sunday; a few stops in Oakland on Monday.
As he points out at each event, this is the kind of primary campaign this state has never seen. Usually the race is decided by the time California votes. But Sanders is hoping that a big win here, while not enough to overcome Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates, will somehow convince unbound superdelegates to throw their support his way. “We are doing something that to the best of my knowledge has never been done in California political history, holding rallies just like this up and down this state,” he says again and again. “By the end of this, I am confident we will have personally met and spoken to over 200,000 Californians. We will win here, and we will go to the Democratic National Convention with the momentum to make our case.”
So as his staff catnapped in the motorcade and the press hoped for at least a coffee stop, the man himself — call him the Energizer Bernie — was completely “on” at one event after the next, giving his one-hour stump speech at what seemed like full volume over and over again.
“He runs the 25-year-old staffers into the ground,” says one former aide who recently left the campaign, which has shedded team members as Clinton has closed in on the nomination.
Another ex-staffer expressed similar surprise at Sanders’ grueling pace.
“Most candidates half his age would strain under the weight of that schedule. There was one day where he hit five or six states in a single day. I really don’t understand how he does it,” the staffer said.
So how DOES he do it?
His wife, Jane, described her husband as “just one of those people who is built to keep going.” He has been sick fewer than half a dozen times in their 28-year marriage, she said, and she credits his endurance to the fact that he was a competitive runner in high school.
It’s certainly not his diet — he tends toward meat at meals, corn is his go-to vegetable, and his aides know to keep salty snacks, like pretzels, on hand in the limo. It’s probably not genetics — both his parents died young. It’s not because he is cosseted and spoiled on the trail. The former aide says “it pisses him off if we try to pamper him” and noted his preference for “simple” stops on the road.
“He’s a Hampton Inn guy, and he’s a diner guy. He’s, like, a Denny’s guy.”
It’s also not because he is religious about sleep — he is a night owl who often stays up too late — or exercises strenuously. There’s no gym time slotted on his schedule, though he often detours the motorcade to a field, or even an empty parking lot, so he can go for a brisk walk between events, with the Secret Service keeping people at bay. Staffers call these constitutionals “the Sanders Stroll.”
“He cannot stand that he doesn’t get fresh air and have a chance to walk,” his wife says. “It was 10 degrees in Wisconsin, and we went for an hour walk.”
Back home he rides his bike every day, she says, and when the Secret Service protection started one requirement was that the agents have bicycles.
And how does he keep his voice from disappearing, as happens to many candidates after such a long slog? That’s something Jane Sanders worries about. By the end of one of his congressional campaigns, he did in fact lose his voice completely and required surgery to remove a polyp from his vocal cords. Now he drinks a lot of hot green tea with lemon, she says, and has learned to rely on a microphone when he is speaking, rather than just shouting, as he did earlier in his career.
But mostly, she says, he is fueled by a lifelong feeling that you have to cram as much into a day as possible. “I first met him when he was mayor of Burlington,” she says, and even back then “he was always saying, ‘We have to accomplish this now because we don’t know how long we’ll be here.’ So he’s always pushing for a fuller day” of events. “If there are arguments with staff over the schedule it’s always him saying, ‘What do you mean just one rally?’ He wants to do as many events as possible, go to as many places as possible, saying, ‘We only have a certain amount of time.’”
Those who have been traveling with him over the course of the campaign says it is Jane who keeps him animated and it’s when she isn’t around that his energy sometimes flags.
“It was weird to see him without Jane,” the former aide says. “Jane brings a very, like, profoundly positive energy.”
This jam-packed weekend has, ironically, been one of those solo times, because Jane has been sick and stayed back home in Vermont. She says (between coughs during a phone interview) that it’s not because she pushed too hard that she became ill, but rather that she took a few days off. “On a campaign you can’t ever stop,” she says. “As long as you keep going, somehow you don’t get sick.” In other words, momentum.
So Bernie will not stop. Not for those in his party who say he has no real road to the nomination and that his extended campaign is only helping Donald Trump, and not for those in his circle who might be getting a little tired.
The entreaties from the press did result (or, more likely, coincide) with an impromptu stop at Tanner’s Coffee Co. in Culver City, where the candidate had a small coffee with cream, then slumped, but just for a few minutes, in a chair by the window. Then he was back in his limousine, before those on the press van even had a chance to order coffees of their own.
Hunter Walker contributed reporting to this story.