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.
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.