Sebastian is standing next to me, watching Cynthia Rifi and Brittnee Meechan approach a neighbor’s door to talk about Bernie Sanders. He looks like he might want to go have a chat with the neighbor too, but he’ll wait to see how it goes first.
It’s probably worth clarifying that Sebastian is a gorgeous, 16.2-hand Dutch Warmblood horse, and he’s parked out front like a car. He often has a Sanders sign fastened to him like a bumper sticker. He’s been the preferred mode of transportation for Rifi, a riding instructor and horse trainer, as she canvasses houses for Sanders here in the rural Golden Valley of Nevada ahead of Saturday’s first-in-the-West presidential caucuses.
You might assume that a democratic socialist from Vermont would struggle in this vast stretch of desert scrubland, where the houses are spaced far apart and the roads are best traveled by horse or four-wheeler. But it’s in places like this, a patch of the West that’s still-Reno-but-only-in-the-official-sense, that the breadth of Sanders’ movement really comes through. Sparse polling shows him well ahead in Nevada. At the same time, new national surveys show Sanders opening a double-digit lead in the wake of his wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. The campaign said Tuesday that it has knocked over 400,000 doors across Nevada. And in places like rural Washoe County, that means relying on supporters like Rifi and Meechan, her stepdaughter, who have logged many miles canvassing on horseback.
“When it comes to any kind of rural organizing out here, it takes a lot of time just to get from house to house,” says Matthew Fonken, the campaign’s regional field director in the Reno-Sparks area, as we sit in Sanders’ Reno field office. It’s the last day of early voting here in Nevada, and there’s a winding line of people outside, waiting to get in the voting site near the office. The campaign has divided the state into eight regions, and Fonken says one-fifth of the doors knocked in the state have been out of the Reno field office alone.
Rifi was introduced to Sanders before the 2016 election by one of her daughters, a college student at the time. She likes his track record, and cites his stances on health care, college affordability and prescription-drug prices as among the reasons she believes he’s the “real deal.” Now, a presidential cycle later, she and her step-daughters have been going out atop Sebastian and their mare Sage for several hours at a time. She says Sanders’ appeal here runs deep. “Rural people are supportive of Bernie. And I think maybe being rural, there might be a stereotype—oh, they’re probably a certain way,” she says, clad in a “Hindsight 2020” Sanders t-shirt. “It’s definitely not what we’ve found. We’ve seen so much support.”
The best part of rural canvassing, Rifi explains, is that as soon as you pull up on your horse, people already know something about you—that you’re a horse person, and what horse person isn’t down to earth? We’re sitting in her home, which is decorated with posters of Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. She and her husband Brent have more than 20 animals on their property, including eight goats, six dogs, two horses, two ponies, two cats, and two llamas that protect their goats from coyotes. There’s a screen in her living room with feeds from the cameras surveilling the property in case any of the animals get out, which has happened before. One night they got loose, and her horses ran around the neighbors’ places, playing follow the leader with even the littlest pony trotting and whinnying. Neighbors came out with halters and leads to help round them up, a story Rifi says illustrates how tight-knit her community is.
Rifi says she hasn’t encountered any hostility while out canvassing. Even neighbors who are not supporting Sanders have been willing to have a conversation. Brent has been supportive of her efforts to volunteer for Sanders, even helping her to make signs despite the fact that he’s a Republican (though one who does not back President Donald Trump).
“If I don’t do everything I can do and try to reach people and send the proper message of who [Sanders] really is,” Rifi says, “then even if things don’t go well, I want to be able to say I tried my best.”
In the 40 minutes we spent out canvassing Tuesday—Rifi on Sebastian, the rest of us following on foot—we only hit two houses whose addresses show up on the campaign’s MiniVan app. One doesn’t answer. But at the other house, a neighbor comes to the door. She tells Rifi she’s already gone out to an early vote site to support Sanders, and Rifi gives her a hug.