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Politics & Government

Mega Rallies Help Fuel Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders Campaigns


Every presidential season seems to have a thing. 1992 was the year of the town hall. Now, in 2016, it's all about the mega rally. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are drawing huge crowds to big venues, and it's helping to fuel their campaigns. Here's NPR's Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When Bernie Sanders took the stage at Washington Square Park in Manhattan last week, approximately 27,000 people lost their minds.


KEITH: The scene was part rock concert - there was a band and the smell of marijuana occasionally wafting through the air - and part political discussion, with Sanders' 60-minute speech about a rigged economy and the corrupting influence of money in politics. The crowd even finished his sentence when he talked about the average size of contributions to his campaign.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Twenty-seven dollars.

BERNIE SANDERS: You got it - $27 average campaign contribution.

KEITH: After the rally, Joanna Bardis was walking on air. Bardis got excited about Sanders' campaign watching videos on YouTube. But there was something special, she said, about actually being there.

JOANNA BARDIS: And it's like you get, like, butterflies in your stomach. Exhilarating how amazing it was to be able to see Bernie Sanders right there in front of your face just speaking about all the things that you've been admiring for months now.

KEITH: In Milwaukee earlier this month, Jacob Corn offered a similar reason for attending a rally for Republican candidate Donald Trump.

JACOB CORN: I just wanted to come to kind of see it. It was - I mean, I've seen him on TV all the time. And he's a great speaker and he has a lot of energy, so I really wanted just to see the whole event.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The next president of the United States, Mr. Donald J. Trump.


KEITH: And an event it is. From city to city, a promise to win, to make America great again. This was Trump last month in Boca Raton, Fla.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I love you.

DONALD TRUMP: I love you, too. It's a guy, but I love you. I love you.

KEITH: After a Trump event in New Hampshire, Jodi LaBoffa went up to get an autograph. She said it was like meeting a rock icon.

JODI LABOFFA: You know, I said, I love you. And he looked back at me and he said, I love you too. And it was like, you know, each person matters to him.

KEITH: This is not to say Trump rallies and Sanders rallies are even remotely the same, but their supporters both regularly praise their authenticity. Sure, rallies have plenty of stagecraft. But unlike a roundtable with business owners or an invitation-only town hall that can seem a little forced, rallies are what they are, a big show. They're something else, too. Josh Zastrow is a Sanders supporter from Wisconsin.

JOSH ZASTROW: They do seem more authentic, and I think it goes back to, you know, a lot of people in one place at one time with a similar mindset.

KEITH: In an age of social media and virtual connectedness, there's something exciting, even cathartic about being with so many like-minded people. A lot of candidates have done mega rallies in the past, but they were reserved for special occasions. For Sanders and Trump, they are a staple. Tom Sander is an expert on civic engagement at Harvard's Kennedy School.

TOM SANDER: There's really large numbers of Americans that are disaffected from government and politics, and I think Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in very different ways tap into that. And the use of these large rallies is a very effective way for them to tap into that disaffection.

KEITH: But that questioning you hear in his voice is a lack of certainty about what it all means. Is this simply political entertainment, or are connections being made that will create lasting political movements?

Tamera Keith, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.