Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks Tuesday night at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction.
When Sen. Bernie Sanders took the stage just after 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Essex Junction, he had only his home state to claim as a victory on Super Tuesday.
The crowd didn’t care.
The bursting-at-the seams audience of just fewer than 4,000 greeted him with thunderous cheers. “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie!” they chanted.
“It’s not winner-take-all,” Sanders reminded the crowd. “By the end of tonight, we are going to win many hundreds of delegates.”
The crowd went even wilder. This was the party of the season for fans of the Vermont independent senator on a surprisingly strong run for the Democratic nomination for president.
Though Sanders and his crowd were upbeat, Tuesday night went better for rival Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. As the evening progressed, he would also win Oklahoma, Colorado and Minnesota, but Clinton was winning Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia.
In her speech in Miami, Clinton congratulated Sanders on a well-run campaign but focused on the Republican competition. “Trying to divide America between us and them is wrong,” she said. “America never stopped being great.”
In Vermont, though, Sanders won a slam dunk, leading Clinton with 85 to 13 percent of the vote late Tuesday night. If she doesn't reach the 15 percent mark, Clinton won't win any of the state's 11 district delegates that were at stake Tuesday night.
Some of Sanders' most ardent supporters admitted quietly that they know this ride might not last. But Tuesday night they basked in their home-state victory and how far the candidate has come.
“Every place we go people are unbelievably inspired,” said Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, who's been campaigning for Sanders around the country.
That inspiration was evident Tuesday. Supporters started lining up at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction before 3 p.m., knowing doors would open at 4 p.m. and that it would likely be a few hours before they heard from Sanders.
Many were longtime fans of the former Burlington mayor, Vermont congressman and now Vermont senator. Martha Abbott, former chair of the Vermont Progressive Party, was among those who had a spot near the front.
And there were newcomers to the Sanders scene. “I just came to hear the man speak in person,” said Dan Johnson of Richmond, carrying his 8-month-old daughter, Frances, on his back. He and his wife, Libby, just moved to Vermont from the Albany, N.Y., area and had never seen Sanders.
Another recent transplant, Chandler Escude of Middlebury, who came to the Expo with his wife and two young sons, said he had warmed to Sanders in just the last couple of months. “A lot of it was the trade policies,” he said.
Sanders even drew at least one Republican. Jason Stewart, an information technology worker from Cincinnati who was in Vermont on business, heard about the rally and came over. He was impressed at the end of Sanders' speech, and said he hopes Sanders can “keep the momentum.”
Still, at this point, Stewart plans to vote for Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the Republican primary. Unhappy with the message that Republican Donald Trump is sending, Stewart said, “I'm becoming an orphan the way my party is going.”
Sanders’ campaign had arranged Tuesday night's event in a hurry, calling the expo staff Friday morning to book the venue, said executive director Tim Shea. Normally, the cavernous, high-ceilinged room hosts soccer games on Tuesday nights, but because of school vacation, there was no soccer on this day, he said.
Seen at the Sanders rally
That’s about how much advance notice the speakers got too. Both Democratic candidates for governor, Matt Dunne and Sue Minter, took the stage, with Sanders offering them a gem of an opportunity to speak to a large and eager crowd.
“Let's keep the fire burning,” Minter urged the crowd. She had just made public in mid-February that she would be voting for Sanders.
“Bernie’s fight is our fight. We are all in this together,” said Dunne, making sure to tell the audience that he was the first gubernatorial candidate in the country to endorse Sanders. Afterward, Dunne acknowledged it was the largest, most raucous audience of his political career. “It was amazing,” he said.
Rebecca Haslam, Vermont's 2015 teacher of the year, and a teacher at Champlain Elementary School in Burlington, championed Sanders' direction. “He's planting the seeds, he's asking us to consider what kind of country we want to become,” she said.
Musicians Kat Wright, Brett Hughes, Ben Folds, Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson entertained the crowd between speeches.
But it was Sanders that the audience had come to hear. The venue could have held another 1,000 in an overflow room and no one was turned away. But many in the audience were sandwiched together to get up close, standing for hours.
Flanked by his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, and their children, Sanders thanked the audience for his Vermont victory and for sticking by him, noting they are “the people who know me best.”
In just 15 minutes he delivered a shortened version of his usual stump speech, focusing on income inequality. He reminded the audience that while 15 states have voted, 35 have yet to vote.
Before he slipped out of the expo, Sanders joined the musicians in a rendition of “This Land is Your Land.” He did not belt it out, leaving that to the professionals.
Wednesday morning, Sanders was scheduled to head to Maine, and then on to Kansas Thursday. First, though, his staff plans a press conference Thursday morning titled “Path Forward.” Staff Writer Molly Walsh contributed.