If the number of protestors a presidential candidate attracts is a sign of the strength of his candidacy, then Bernie Sanders is looking formidable.
A group of more than a dozen protestors held a demonstration outside the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in Arlington, Va., on Thursday where Sanders, I-Vt., spoke to approximately 550 people.
The protest was organized by the Arlington Falls Church Young Republicans and its allies. Young Republican Peter Ildefonso heard about Sanders' speech more than a month ago, but it was sold out, so he decided to protest it instead.
Conner Dunleavy, who coordinated the event, told the Washington Examiner, "We are protesting his economic policy of so called 'democratic socialism,' which can be seen in full force in Greece now. We believe that the future of America, our futures, cannot be driven by such failed ideologies."
Their handmade signs ridiculed Sanders' self-proclaimed socialist views. Signs carried messages such as "Bernie-nomics: It's Greek to Me" and "Live the Dream Bernie. Move to China."
The protestors were treated well by the Sanders event organizers — at least compared to the way protestors have been treated at events held by Hillary Clinton and President Obama. At Clinton's speeches, Caitlin Grimes said she had encountered people that "tried to get in our face and make us mad."
If Clinton had given the speech there Thursday, "There would probably be people out here to counter us," Grimes told the Examiner. Sanders' event staff did not make the protesters leave, as long as they did not block the exits and sidewalks.
Seeing Sanders as more welcoming than Clinton toward protesters, the group hoped to talk with the candidate. But they never got the chance. "It's just one of those things where we'd love to actually talk with him, but apparently he doesn't want to come talk with us," Ildefonso told the Examiner.
They still captured the attention of many passersby. Some took photographs, others slowed to read the signs from a distance and some asked about what the group was protesting.
But the best interactions came after Sanders' speech ended. People poured out of the doors and yelled and argued with the protesters.
One attendee, Hephzibah Morgan Cruz, said the protestors were mischaracterizing Sanders' views with "outdated" language. "I feel like they're recycling a lot of terminologies, slogans that have been used to hoodwink people in the past," she told the Examiner. "I think that their intentions are good, but they need to understand that it's about involving more people in the process of decision making."
If Sanders was preaching about tolerance inside, his message did not seem to sink in with all of his supporters. Rachel Suarez's sign, which read "There is no such thing as a 'free lunch,'" sparked strong reactions from several speech attendees. One man yelled, "Oh, there is a free lunch. If you're a billionaire." Other notable retorts included: "This is a white privilege group," to "Where's your Confederate flag?" and "This is their opposition to Bernie? It's kind of laughable."
Although the protesters did not get to debate Sanders himself, the reactions they elicited from his supporters might have been even more entertaining.
Emily Leayman is an intern at the Washington Examiner