Over the span of six hours on Tuesday, I listened to Bernie Sanders talk about a revolution, watched Hillary Clinton vow to stand up to Donald Trump, was screamed at by protesters, got whacked upside the head by cameras and tripods, most likely appeared on a Spanish-language television station, and learned several valuable lessons, most notably that if you slap the phrase "F—k Trump" on a T-shirt or button, it'll sell like hotcakes.
After what's felt like millennia covering the 2016 race from afar, once I heard that the Democratic contenders were going to be in my own backyard in Southern California, I knew I had to see them in the flesh. While planning my day, I figured if I timed everything right and the traffic gods smiled down at me, I'd be able to race from Sanders' rally at the Riverside Municipal Auditorium to Clinton's rally at the University of California, Riverside. I wanted to compare and contrast the two events, to see how wide the gulf is between the two camps.
When I arrived in downtown Riverside, I was greeted by dejected-looking Sanders fans walking in the opposite direction of the auditorium, obviously unable to get inside the event. There was a heavy police presence, and if there were any protesters they weren't visible. As I walked to the rally, it seemed funny to pass by businesspeople headed back to the office from lunch and guests checking into the tony Mission Inn, while just a block away, Sanders supporters were chanting about starting a revolution.
Outside the auditorium, I learned my first lesson of the day: If you sell something with Sanders' name or face on it, you're going to make money. If you sell something that says "F—k Trump," you'll get double. There was a thriving marketplace set up, with at least a dozen vendors hawking "Talk Bernie To Me" tops and "Feel the Bern" buttons. As I watched people line up to fork over money for these items, I briefly considered embarking on a new career in Sanders-related paraphernalia, thought better of it, and made my way inside the rally.
The auditorium, which probably can hold no more than a couple thousand people across two levels, was packed. The people selected to stand onstage behind Sanders were in place, smiling and dancing and waving their "Bernie" signs. l asked a volunteer how many people were inside, and she said she didn't know. I asked her if she knew what time people arrived that morning to gain entrance, and she said she didn't know. I asked her if she knew how many people were turned away, and she said she didn't know. That's when I learned lesson number two: After a few responses of "I don't know," stop asking questions.
Looking around the auditorium, I saw a very diverse crowd, representing all ages and all races. Several chants broke out, including "Viva la Bernie" and "We are the 99 percent." Spirits were high, but the atmosphere wasn't as electric as I expected (I suspect it's because we were inside a pretty small auditorium). The rally was supposed to start at 2 p.m., and by 2:15 p.m., people were getting antsy. Every time someone would come onstage, the crowd would roar, even when it was clearly obvious that the tall brunette checking the mic was not the man of the hour. Lesson number three: If you need a boost to your self-esteem or crave constant praise, consider joining a political campaign. You will get cheered any time you walk onstage, regardless of who you are and what you're doing.
Finally, after an introduction by Kendrick Sampson, Sanders walked onstage. The cheers from the audience were deafening: Imagine a One Direction concert multiplied by a Justin Bieber show. At first all I could see was that familiar shock of white hair, and then I heard his distinctive voice. Sanders covered several familiar topics, including expanding Social Security and getting help for people with mental illness now, not in six months. His whole campaign he said, is about "thinking outside the box, outside the status quo, and asking the hard questions that members of Congress by and large do not ask."
About 20 minutes into Sanders' speech, I had to get going in order to make it to UCR. And after standing for so long, my feet were already on fire, and I learned lesson number four: Don't wear an older pair of Toms to a political rally.
At UCR, the vibe was different outside. There was a huge line to get in, and an area roped off for protesters, who faced counter-protesters. One young man had a sign that read "Cali Hates Hillary," and his buddy yelled, "F—k Hillary!" Other people were chanting, "H is for hypocrisy." Most of the people in line were ignoring them.
This crowd was similar to Sanders' audience — diverse, although I think there were more women here. The rally was held in a gym, which held about the same number of people as the auditorium I was just at (minus its balcony level). There was cheering, but no chanting, and people I believe were from a union passed out spirit sticks and stickers. I was in the press area, and somehow became a magnet for the crews lugging their cameras and tripods. First I was hit in the shoulder, then the leg, and finally the head. At least it briefly distracted me from the blisters forming on my feet.
Blessedly, the rally began on time at 5:30 p.m. But instead of one introduction like at Sanders' event, seven people took the stage before Clinton. One was Grey's Anatomy star Jason George, and another was Mary Steenburgen, who I found out was a longtime friend of Clinton's, going back to their Arkansas days. I had to laugh because every time someone came onstage that wasn't Hillary Clinton, the audience sighed. I think Oprah could have come out and told everyone they were going home with a brand new car and the reaction would have been the same.
At least 30 minutes later, it was time for Clinton to come out. Instantly, nearly every single person raised their phones and started snapping photos, more so than at the Sanders rally. While Sanders was laser focused on topics, Clinton talked broadly about her campaign and taking on Trump.
"It's something we have to take seriously, my friends," she said. "It may have started out as entertainment, but now it's really, really concerning. I don't want what he says to go unanswered. I will continue to stand up and speak out against what he says, the kind of positions and policies that he's putting forward, the way he treats people, how divisive he is."
For all the talk about the differences between Clinton and Sanders, one thing is for sure: Their supporters really, really don't like Trump. Whenever he was mentioned, the crowds let out loud boos. Trump felt like he was everywhere, hovering over both rallies.
At the Clinton event, there were also a few protesters, with one shouting "Bernie!" and the others yelling something unintelligible. Lesson number five: Keep your protest shouts short and simple. It does you no good when people are left wondering what exactly it is you're protesting.
Clinton spoke for less than an hour, and then she went down into the crowd and started taking selfies and shaking hands. About two inches away from me, a woman started broadcasting a report in Spanish, and I'm pretty sure my hair made its way into the shot. Outside, a few more people had joined the protesters, and they lined up along the walkway people were using to exit the event. As I limped my way through, I had my path blocked by some kid who started shouting about poverty. All I wanted to do was go home and burn my shoes.
I'm glad I got a chance to see both Sanders and Clinton in person. Had Trump been in the area, I would have made a valiant attempt to see him, too.
For everyone who wonders why Sanders is still in the race despite the math, it's clear why: He draws huge numbers and they don't want to see him drop out. The Riverside audience was thrilled to have him in town and cheered for every part of his platform, as the ringing in my ears can attest.
As for Clinton, don't listen to those who say young people don't like her — there were plenty at her rally, their smiles contagious and their excitement palpable. After spending the afternoon chasing Sanders and Clinton across town, I have nothing but respect for the reporters who have been following them (and Trump) around the country. Lesson number six: Watching a rally on television is a lot easier than actually being there. The view's better, you can pause the action, and there's no need to be on your feet.