A Bernie Sanders supporter holds up a sign at a rally in Iowa. (Arun Chaudhary/ Revolution Messaging)

How Iowa’s Independent Streak Explains Bernie Sanders’ Meteoric Rise

Iowans have a long history of breaking from party orthodoxy. Our reporting from the state shows that could be good news for Sanders on February 1.

BY Theo Anderson

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“It doesn’t feel the same as in 2008,” Kroeger says. “The spirit of optimistic change—that doesn’t exist. Now I feel like the revolutionaries from 240 years ago. We’re over here going, ‘You know we’ve lost our government. You know we’re controlled by corporate interests. You know our wages have been flat.’ And yet: ‘You know we can do this.’ ”

On February 1, Iowa will launch the voting phase of the 2016 presidential campaign and Democrats will weigh Hillary Clinton’s strengths as an establishment candidate against Bernie Sanders’ ability to channel the frustrations felt by a wide swath of the population. A win by Clinton will smooth her path to the nomination and make life less complicated for the Democratic National Committee. A win by Sanders will give his candidacy a new legitimacy—as it did for Barack Obama in 2008—and perhaps rewrite the prevailing media narratives about the race, most notably the notion that, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently put it, “the party doesn’t want to turn against the front runner in a truly fundamental way.”

On the Saturday before Christmas, Sanders supporters all across Iowa hosted debate-watching parties in their homes. Among them were Melanie Beauchamp and her daughter, Madison, who live in Cedar Rapids, a city of about 130,000 in eastern Iowa.

Melanie, 42, caucused for Hillary Clinton in 2008. “I was younger and dumber, and I put electability ahead of belief,” she says. She also had a residual sense of loyalty, since Bill Clinton was the first president she voted for. At that caucus, “I was just flabbergasted when I saw the parade of Obama people come in,” Beauchamp says. Obama won a plurality of votes, which paved the way for his subsequent wins.

Beauchamp grew up in a small town near Waterloo, about an hour’s drive northwest of Cedar Rapids, and says that many of her family members are single-issue voters: They oppose abortion rights and always vote Republican. Growing up, “I didn’t know about a lot of this other stuff,” she says. Two of her priorities now are healthcare and human rights. “We need to look at each other as human beings,” she says. “We’ve been treating people as financial assets instead of human beings.” Reforming the criminal justice system is especially important to her. Beauchamp, who is white, says the past year’s racial conflict and Black Lives Matter movement played a role in her shift to the left and her support for Sanders. But a more important influence has been Madison, an 18-year-old senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids.

Both Beauchamps will caucus for Sanders on February 1, and both are involved in other ways. Melanie has donated money—her first presidential campaign contribution—and Madison volunteers with the campaign, making phone calls, knocking on doors and helping with voter-registration drives.

Madison was excited about Clinton, but after Sanders announced his candidacy last spring, she began researching the candidates’ voting records. Sanders is “100 percent not a hypocrite,” she says. She believes that Sanders appeals to young people like her because he offers hope of taking back a system that shapes their future but has slipped beyond their control.

“Bernie is giving Clinton a run for her money, and the average contribution to his campaign is like $30,” she says. “He’s owned by the people. Hillary—I’ve seen her speak before—says, ‘We need to end Citizens United; we need to overturn it.’ But she’s funded by super PACs herself.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m one of the only people who feels like this in my high school,” she says. “I can honestly say that I’ve been made fun of in class. But I don’t care [about that] anymore, because this is so important to me.”

“She’s totally enamored,” Melanie says. “Get her talking enough about him and she’ll tear up.”

An unpredictable state

This is “American Gothic” country. Grant Wood, the artist who created the iconic painting, spent most of his life in Cedar Rapids. The city has named a school after him; its art museum has the largest collection of his work anywhere.

The painting captures the taciturn character of Midwestern farmers, but Iowa’s politics have been marked more by anger than stoicism over the past few years. In 2014, a Tea Party-type Republican, Joni Ernst, won the Senate seat formerly held by Democrat Tom Harkin. Ernst talked a lot about getting government out of people’s lives and promoting “self-sufficiency” by cutting spending on “entitlement” programs.

Prior to the 2014 election, Iowa’s congressional delegation had been evenly split between the two parties. The GOP now controls both of Iowa’s U.S. Senate seats and three of its four House seats, in addition to the governorship. But for all that, Iowa’s history suggests that there is a powerful, progressive current in the state waiting to be tapped. Harkin was a reliable left-of-center vote in the Senate for five terms. Parts of the state have historical ties to socialism: In 1920, Davenport voted in a Socialist Party mayor, along with a city council dominated by Socialists.

In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, the latest step in a long history of being far ahead of the curve in the realms of equality and diversity. For example, Iowa was first in the nation to admit women to all degree programs at the state university, in 1855, and the first to appoint a woman to statewide office, in 1871. It legalized interracial marriage in 1851, and in 1894 it became the third state to give women the right to vote. It’s also home to the first mosque built in the United States—the Mother Mosque, in Cedar Rapids, completed in 1934.

In a state that is so politically engaged and willing to go its own way, the success of the GOP in Iowa seems to have less to do with a full embrace of right-wing ideology than of the Tea Party’s promises of taking power back from the establishment.

“Democrats, not given a reason to vote, didn’t show up, so turnout on our side was down historically low,” says Dave Nagle, a Waterloo-based lawyer who served as Democratic state chair in the early 1980s and then represented Iowa’s third district in Congress for three terms. Iowa “turned hard right because we ran away from ourselves and didn’t give people a reason to vote for us. We didn’t talk about income inequality. And we still, to this day, are doing a terrible job, even as a national party, of articulating why we have income inequality.”

In Iowa and across the nation, the Democratic dilemma is that the candidate who articulates that message most forcefully and persistently—Sanders— faces an establishment candidate whose aura of inevitability makes resistance seem futile. Sanders represents, for many voters, their ideals. Clinton represents what it will take to win in the fall—the abundant resources of the establishment machinery.

“Hillary Clinton is a strong candidate—look at her resume, look at her ability to fundraise, look at her skillset,” says Gary Kroeger, who is running for the House as a Democrat in Iowa’s first district. “Democrats want to win. If someone says, ‘I support Hillary Clinton,’ the last thing I’m going to say is, ‘Why?’ I get it.”

Kroeger, 58, was a cast member of Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s and was known for playing the Democratic presidential candidate in 1984, Walter Mondale. After SNL, Kroeger worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles before moving back to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area 12 years ago. He wanted his two sons to be raised with the same “Iowa values” that had shaped him. He decided to run for Congress last spring and has endorsed Sanders because he believes that those values—especially the dedication to equality—are being undermined by the establishments of both parties.

Kroeger is also concerned about the amount of money needed to mount and win a political campaign. “If it’s not possible for a middle-class person with a couple of kids and an aging mother and a full-time job to represent people with full-time jobs and children and aging parents, then we’re screwed,” he says. Kroeger works full time as the creative director for an advertising agency in Cedar Falls. “And the truth is, we are screwed. But we will continue to be screwed if we don’t find pathways to victory for [candidates like] Sanders.”

Kroeger says that the spirit of optimism Obama generated eight years ago has dissipated. “People are tired of rhetoric,” he says. “They’re tired of marketing.” What he senses, instead, is a pervasive disquiet shot through with a restless and rebellious energy. “Feel the Bern” captures the mood of the times perfectly, he believes.

“It doesn’t feel the same as in 2008,” Kroeger says. “The spirit of optimistic change—that doesn’t exist. Now I feel like the revolutionaries from 240 years ago. We’re over here going, ‘You know we’ve lost our government. You know we’re controlled by corporate interests. You know our wages have been flat.’ And yet: ‘You know we can do this.’ ”

The final sprint

The New York Times reports that, using his flood of late-2015 donations, Sanders has “quietly assembled an extensive ground game” in Iowa, consisting of 100 paid staff members and a trained volunteer in each of the nearly 1,700 caucus precincts. The average of polls maintained by RealClearPolitics showed Clinton leading Sanders in Iowa by just four points on Martin Luther King Day—exactly two weeks before the caucus, and the morning after the latest Democratic debate, which many pundits described as a win for Sanders. 

But the polls are irrelevant at this point, says Dave Nagle, who doesn’t endorse candidates. “You cannot, unless you’re here, realize what the last week of the caucus is like—the volatility, the pressure” and the “organized pandemonium” as the campaigns mobilize their bases and undecided voters settle. “When that last 20 percent decides to move, it can be mind-boggling,” Nagle says.

Polling misses late swings in voter preferences, and it doesn’t capture what is most critical in caucuses and primaries: not how popular candidates are in general, but how many of their supporters will actually show up on election day. One great irony of the Sanders campaign is that a substantial portion of his base are people who believe that our political system is so broken and corrupt that their votes no longer matter. When they don’t turn out to vote, that self-suppression affirms the status quo and confirms the cynicism.

Beyond this vicious cycle, Sanders is competing against a Clinton campaign that has learned much from the mistakes of 2008. “She has great ground organization—exceptional ground organization,” Nagle says. “She’s adopted and expressed a lot of the concerns that Bernie has. She’s appeared much more personable; she’s more relaxed; she’s better scheduled.”

Clinton is also doing a better job than Sanders of connecting her campaign to local issues, according to Nagle, who has attended the rallies of both candidates. Clinton, for example, has been especially good at hammering Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad for pursuing a scheme to privatize Medicaid and cut education budgets.

In Iowa, as elsewhere, it is a contest between the wide—but perhaps not deep—support the Clinton campaign has built and the deep—but perhaps not wide enough—enthusiasm Sanders evokes. The Rev. Frantz Whitfield, pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist, an AfricanAmerican church in Waterloo, believes that Clinton’s support is shallower than it appears, and that Iowa is winnable for Sanders.

“There is a lot of vocal support for Hillary, but to me it’s just a lot of talk,” says Whitfield, who switched his support from Clinton to Sanders in August and has been campaigning for him across the state. In mid-December, Sanders spoke at Mt. Carmel during a Sunday service, and the church has hosted voter-registration drives. “A lot of people are afraid to come out and say that they’re not supporting Hillary because they feel like it might be political suicide. It’s [based on] a lot of fear.”

Winning February 1, he says, “is all about mobilization. It’s all about speaking out and walking the streets.”

The revolution at work

Sanders has insisted, all along, that his campaign is about creating a “political revolution.” The outcome of the Iowa caucus depends on how many people are willing to suspend disbelief that a revolution is possible. There is no reliable way to capture the depth, breadth and durability of that faith, or to know whether it can prevail. But across the state, glimpses of it are visible—in the Beauchamps, in Kroeger, in Whitfield and in Rebecca Aguilar, who lives in the southeast Iowa town of Fremont and works at Country Kitchen, a chain restaurant in nearby Ottumwa.

Aguilar, 37, voted for Obama in the 2012 general election but didn’t caucus for him. This year, she will not only caucus for Sanders but is working as a precinct captain. It will be her job at the caucus to try to persuade Clinton’s supporters to change sides and support Sanders. In the meantime, she’s been blogging about Sanders, making phone calls, talking to people, writing newspaper editorials, taking part in “too many” Sanders-related local and national groups, and “getting creative.” When the town of Oskaloosa had a holiday parade in early December, for example, she and friends created a Sanders-themed float. For her, the key issues are healthcare, immigration and campaign finance reform.

Polls consistently show that Sanders’ strongest appeal is among voters 18 to 29, and in a narrow sense, the fate of his political revolution will largely depend on whether people like Aguilar turn out in strong numbers February 1. But in a larger sense, perhaps the moral of Aguilar’s story is that the campaign can’t be reduced to what happens at the Iowa caucus or during this election cycle.

“I work in a restaurant; I see a lot of young people,” she says. “They’re just now feeling like they’re being heard— like they do have an opportunity to make a difference in this campaign.”

Aguilar noted that two of her friends—college-age twins who work at the restaurant—have become politically engaged by working for the Sanders campaign.

“Both of them are going to be a force to reckon with, politically,” she says. “So I know, for sure, no matter what happens, a handful of people who had little to do with politics at all will continue to understand the importance of being involved in their state and their communities. And that’s true for me as well. Very true for me.”

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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