Keep talking, listening, moving
By Jasper Craven, VTDigger.org
At his fourth campaign stop of the day on a recent Friday, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’ voice was hoarse from hours of talking. His energy level, however, was hardly flagging. Eight more forums, speeches and rallies were scheduled over the weekend. On top of that, Sanders had added a few more unscheduled stops.
Bernie zoomed from event to event, his longtime aide and wheelman Phil Fiermonte in command. Just as in Vermont, Sanders was perpetually behind schedule, these days because he carved out long blocks of time at the end of events to answer questions.
By Sunday, Sanders voice was at peak growl. In a packed auditorium in Perry, the Vermont senator coughed frequently. He drained two bottles of water to keep his vocal cords lubricated. He didn’t seem to care. He just kept going, his voice rising at times, almost painful to hear. Income inequality. Break up the big banks. Corporate greed.
“The guy is a workhorse. He’s always been a workhorse,” said campaign manager Jeff Weaver. “When I worked for him in the Congress he was there—often before people got there—and was certainly there long after everybody else left. It’s what he does.”
In Iowa, a candidate has to. Voter outreach is critical in any campaign, but particularly in the two earliest challenges in any political campaign—Iowa and New Hampshire—where voters expect to see the candidate up close—and often. Any candidate who doesn’t commit to Iowa will hear about it.
Weaver described what it’s like working for the 74-year-old workaholic. “We will give him a proposed schedule and he will say, ‘Why am I not going to more places? There’s a 15-minute block, why is something not going on there?’” Weaver said.
Pete D’Allesandro is Sanders’ Iowa state director (though he says he doesn’t like official titles, as they are oligarchic). He has helped shape Sanders’ strategy here and said the senator’s crammed schedule is key to a win.
How to win Iowa
Sanders has reached deep into the cornfields. The campaign estimates that more than 50,000 Iowans will have seen Bernie by Caucus Day on Feb. 1. (A Clinton adviser declined to tell the New York Times roughly how many people she had spoken to.)
The Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman Dr. Andrea “Andy” McGuire said she was impressed by how often Sanders has been to Iowa and the effectiveness and organizational skills of his staff. “Candidates have to say how they are going to lead the country forward,” McGuire said. “It’s that look-them-in-the-eye vision of a progressive agenda that is most important in the last couple of days.”
Each Sanders event allows voters to hear Sanders and ask questions, which is crucial. But each appearance also offers huge opportunities from an organizational point of view, because key data can be collected.
“We want to keep talking to them, to keep them engaged,” D’Allesandro said, noting that caucus cards, in particular, facilitate that process.
Before a recent Sanders event on the east side of Des Moines, a dozen staffers reached out to the more than 1,500 Iowans in line, asking them to sign a card committing to caucus for Sanders. A pitch to sign caucus cards was reiterated before Sanders spoke in Des Moines by staffer Simon Bracey-Lane. Similar pitches from staffers preceded virtually every Iowa event Sanders held over the weekend.
“I see Iowans every day who are just full to the brim with their desire to see Bernie president,” said Bracey-Lane, an Englishman who moved to Iowa to work on the campaign. “But what we need before the caucus is for us to translate that support into people going to their caucus to get Bernie elected.”
If they sign a card, Iowans are contacted within 48 hours by the campaign to volunteer or work on a phone bank. Followups continue incessantly to ensure Sanders supporters show up on caucus day.
“It’s not like Trump; we let you into a speech even if you don’t commit,” D’Allesandro said, referring to the political loyalty test recently imposed at the Republican front-runner’s event in Burlington at the Flynn Theater. “But they often come in neutral and leave wanting to sign the caucus card.”
Team Sanders is expecting a healthy turnout from supporters at precinct stations on caucus day, as supporters of the Vermont senator are seen as fervent and, therefore, more likely to caucus than the Clinton crowd.
The types of people supporting Sanders also matter. Only the most engaged Iowans show up to caucus, people willing to spend hours deliberating over a candidate. (A primary, on the other hand, simply requires a checkmark on a ballot. While primaries require simple votes, caucuses are an intense exercise in civic engagement.)
A recent Des Moines Register poll showed that Sanders scored well with the voting blocs crucial to Barack Obama’s Iowa upset in 2008: political independents and those under 45. A Quinnipiac Poll showed that Sanders also has a hefty lead over Clinton among Iowans planning to attend their first caucus, 66 percent to 26 percent.
The key is not only to draw Iowans for Bernie to the 1,681 precincts throughout the state’s 99 counties, but also to make sure they know the ins and outs of the democratic socialist’s policies.
The caucus process
As the caucus starts, delegates for each candidate gather in designated candidate areas. Then, a Sanders representative—called a precinct captain—works to persuade neighbors in the O’Malley and Clinton corners to “Feel the Bern.” Clinton and O’Malley precinct captains also sound off, as do other supporters in the room. After initial debate for about a half an hour, supporters can realign before further discussion occurs. After hours of debate, delegates in each precinct are counted, and, eventually, a candidate is given a certain number of Iowa’s 56 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
D’Allesandro said that voter education is key in this process, as unaffiliated surrogates must explain and defend Sanders for hours. The campaign believes that the debates on Caucus Day will help Sanders, as supporters will note Clinton’s establishment ties and highlight Sanders’ more ambitious proposals.