In the Middle of the Night, Bernie Was Tipped Toward Iowa Victory by Working-Class Immigrant Votes

Foreign-language satellite caucuses took a projected state delegate win away from Pete Buttigieg.

David GoodnerFebruary 6, 2020

The satellite caucus for foreign language speakers at Caring Hands and More in Iowa City awarded all nine of its delegates to Sanders. (Photo by Juan Manuel Galvez Ibarra)

Until late Wednes­day night, as the bun­gled Iowa cau­cus results trick­led in, pun­dits declared South Bend, Ind., May­or Pete Buttigieg the like­ly win­ner in a nar­row mar­gin over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt.). That evening, Iowa final­ly began to report the results of the spe­cial satel­lite loca­tions across Iowa where many mem­bers of Iowa’s work­ing class cau­cused. At 97% report­ing — with major ques­tions around Iowa’s process and a recan­vass ordered—the New York Times gave Sanders a 54% chance of a win, a rever­sal from its near-cer­tain pre­dic­tion the day before that Buttigieg had won.

Kamal Ahmed of Iowa City, a Sudanese American and regular Democratic voter, said he received literature in the mail from other campaigns but that only Bernie canvassers actually knocked on his door.

Turnout didn’t match the record-break­ing num­bers set by Barack Obama’s cam­paign in 2008. But Iowa fac­to­ry work­ers, eth­nic and racial minori­ties, and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties were empow­ered to cau­cus this year with 60 new satel­lite loca­tions in the state at work­sites, col­lege cam­pus­es, mosques, Lati­no Catholic parish­es and union halls across the state. The satel­lite loca­tions went over­whelm­ing­ly for Sanders.

At the Hoover Ele­men­tary Satel­lite Cau­cus in Cedar Rapids, where instruc­tions were read in eight lan­guages and 80% of atten­dees were report­ed­ly first-time vot­ers, Sanders won all of the delegates.

The Sanders cam­paign was instru­men­tal in push­ing for the satel­lite cau­cus­es and turn­ing out new, non­tra­di­tion­al vot­ers to them. Sanders vol­un­teers say they appeared to be the only one aggres­sive­ly can­vass­ing work­ing-class immi­grant neigh­bor­hoods in Des Moines and Iowa City. (The Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Buttigieg cam­paigns did not respond to requests for com­ment.) Accord­ing to the cam­paign, it knocked on a total of 500,000 Iowa doors in Jan­u­ary, and its 200 paid staff and thou­sands-strong vol­un­teer army filled 10,000 can­vass shifts the week­end before the caucus.

Kamal Ahmed of Iowa City, a Sudanese Amer­i­can and reg­u­lar Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­er, said he received lit­er­a­ture in the mail from oth­er cam­paigns but that only Bernie can­vassers actu­al­ly knocked on his door. 

In These Times spent a week before the cau­cus shad­ow­ing a group of ten Sudanese Sanders sup­port­ers from the Pheas­ant Ridge apart­ment com­plex in Iowa City as they pre­pared to cau­cus at one of two locations. 

I am cau­cus­ing for Bernie because he focus­es on the work­ing class and how to make day-to-day life bet­ter for work­ers,” says Eltayeb Elamin, 47.

Elamin was iden­ti­fied twice as a Bernie sup­port­er by vol­un­teer can­vassers out door­knock­ing his Pheas­ant Ridge apart­ment build­ing, where many Sudanese Amer­i­cans live.

But Elamin actu­al­ly com­mit­ted to cau­cus for Sanders as part of a col­lec­tive of eight oth­er Sudanese women and men who had backed Sanders in 2016. The group met infor­mal­ly sev­er­al times before com­ing to a con­sen­sus togeth­er about which can­di­date to sup­port this year.

The Sudanese have a strong com­mu­ni­ty in a lot of ways and we always come togeth­er to dis­cuss social issues and the issues that affect work­ing peo­ple,” Elamin says. 

It is very nor­mal to see Sudanese peo­ple sit­ting togeth­er, talk­ing about pol­i­tics,” agrees Bakhit Bakhit, 70, anoth­er mem­ber of the col­lec­tive, who also cau­cused for Sanders in 2016. I see Bernie try­ing to build a grass­roots social base, which is unusu­al in this coun­try where elec­tions are the only thing that mat­ters, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has no social base, and the win­ner writes the platform.”

Bernie fights for all work­ing peo­ple,” says Both­ay­na Sati-Huss­ian, 54, of why she sup­ports Sanders. He fights to raise the min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour, he fights to make tuition free for all stu­dents, and he fights for Medicare for All for everybody.”

On cau­cus night, after two bus­loads of Sudanese Amer­i­cans from Pheas­ant Ridge arrived at the satel­lite cau­cus for for­eign lan­guage speak­ers at Car­ing Hands and More in Iowa City, it award­ed all nine of its del­e­gates to Sanders.

Kelvin Ho moved to Des Moines from Chica­go in Novem­ber 2019 to can­vass for Sanders. He real­ized after a week or two that his best bet was to go all-in on orga­niz­ing the city’s small, work­ing-class refugee com­mu­ni­ty through its tight-knit web of rela­tion­ships. He found that Bhutanese-Nepali com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers, many of whom had earned their stature in the refugee camps in Bhutan or Myan­mar, were per­son­al­ly famil­iar with every­one on his out­reach list. Most were first-time vot­ers and many were unfa­mil­iar with Sanders, but Sanders’ plat­form of free health­care and tuition-free col­lege imme­di­ate­ly res­onat­ed with them.

By the time of the cau­cus­es, the cam­paign had done exten­sive out­reach to South­east Asian, East African and Balkan refugees in Des Moines. They honed in on the new satel­lite cau­cus­es based around for­eign-lan­guage com­mu­ni­ties. The team used 24 bus­es to get vot­ers to the cau­cus­es, and a local vol­un­teer helped with con­fir­ma­tion calls in Nepali.

Their efforts paid off. Sanders swept satel­lite cau­cus­es at Des Moines’ Bosn­ian Islam­ic Cen­ter Zen Zen, where many cau­cus-goers were Bhutanese Nepali refugees exiled from their place of birth; the Karen Bap­tist Church, filled with eth­nic minor­i­ty refugees from Myan­mar; and the Grand­view Uni­ver­si­ty Stu­dent Cen­ter, where cau­cus­go­ers of Lao, Hmong, Fil­ipino, Viet­namese and Cam­bo­di­an descent convened.

While on the stump for Sanders in Sioux City, Iowa, on Jan­u­ary 26, Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) explained how the satel­lite cau­cus orga­niz­ing fit into Sanders’ the­o­ry of change:

When we talk about fight­ing for some­one we don’t know, it means fight­ing for the least of us. … In talk­ing about that com­mit­ment to the mar­gin­al­ized, do you know what this cam­paign has done behind the scenes? They have worked to add tons of cau­cus­ing sites in mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties this year. Tons. Tons. This cam­paign and this move­ment has fought to put cau­cus­ing sites in mosques, in lati­no com­mu­ni­ties, in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. Because what we’re here to do is dra­mat­i­cal­ly expand the elec­torate. We’re not just here to win with the same tiny slice of peo­ple any­more. We’re going to win by expand­ing and grow­ing that elec­torate and we know as orga­niz­ers that we have the pos­si­bil­i­ty and the capac­i­ty to do that.

The author served as a Sanders precinct cap­tion at Iowa City 01, which was not one of the satel­lite caucuses.

Isaac Sil­ver, who vol­un­teered for Sanders in Des Moines, Iowa, con­tributed report­ing to this story.

UPDATE: The arti­cle has been updat­ed to reflect that the state del­e­gate equiv­a­lent counts from the statel­lite cau­cus­es remain uncertain.

David Good­ner is a writer, orga­niz­er and Catholic Work­er from Iowa City.
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