Inside Look: Bernie’s Final Push in Iowa

(Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

DES MOINES, IOWA—With less than 72 hours until caucus time in Iowa the dueling Democrats—Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton—are turning up their respective “Get out the Caucus” outreach efforts.

The two presidential contenders are in a statistical dead heat as Sanders has mounted a surprising surge in recent polls. Both candidates are leaning on Iowa to provide critical momentum for the upcoming New Hampshire primary, then leading into South Carolina and Super Tuesday. With so much on the line, candidates are rolling out large-scale operations this weekend to ensure that their supporters turnout to caucus.

Sanders’s campaign anticipates more than 1,000 volunteers will mobilize at its 26 Iowa field offices this weekend, with many coming from all over the country—and even a few coming from Canada, the U.K., and France.

“This is a testament to the political revolution,” Sanders Press Secretary Symone Sanders (no relation) told me.

On Friday, I trekked over to Sanders’ state headquarters in Des Moines. The office is nestled between a Hy-Vee grocery store and an H&R Block in an unassuming strip mall. Inside, a couple dozen people—staffers, volunteers, and a few journalists—were milling about. The office has a charmingly haphazard quality to it. The walls are adorned with posters (including a campaign wish list for things like coffee, paper towels, and a “fridge that actually keeps things cold”) and lawn signs. Campaign operation notes are scrawled directly on the drywall.

As part of its down-to-the-wire push, the campaign is doing multiple “canvass launches” each day to ensure turnout.

On Friday evening, I tagged along with two volunteers who are making the Bernie campaign a family affair. Emily Isaac is a University of California, Davis, student who heads her campus’s pro-Bernie group, which has been teaming up with other California college supporters to phone bank voters in neighboring Nevada. Apparently, mere phone banking wasn’t enough: Emily traveled to Iowa earlier this week, while her mother, Kristi, flew out to join her on Friday.

I joined them on their first canvassing route together in a Des Moines neighborhood. They hit a few houses for a couple blocks, hoping to catch people home after work, but mostly just left door-hangers with precinct information. Soon, though, they had to cut the canvass short—another family member, Emily’s brother, had just landed in Des Moines to join them in the volunteer effort.

Sanders himself is hitting the Iowa trail one last time before Monday as he tries to convince caucus-goers that his ambitious policy platform is more than a political pipedream. He’s also enlisted the support of several celebrity surrogates, including actress Susan Sarandon, philosopher/phenomenon Cornel West, and band members from Foster the People and Vampire Weekend.

Inevitably, Sanders’s surprisingly successful challenge to Clinton has drawn comparisons to Barack Obama’s own challenge back in 2008. Each attracted an army of young supporters inspired by the prospect of transformative change.

There are, of course, clear differences between them; Sanders is far more the outsider than Obama ever was. “Bernie Sanders is not Barack Obama,” says Symone Sanders. “But the energy and feeling that was there is here again.”

The campaign estimates that more than 60,000 Iowans have come out to Sanders’s rallies since he launched his campaign. The trick is to translate that impressive enthusiasm to actual caucus participation, particularly among his young supporters.

To that end, his campaign has leveraged social media like Snapchat and Twitter to inform young Iowans about the caucus process and produced a YouTube video entitled “How to Caucus in Iowa.” Not surprisingly, the campaign has also made a point of promoting Sanders’s support for a free public college education and student debt relief throughout the Iowa college campus circuit.

Clinton’s campaign, by contrast, has the advantage among older, more experienced caucus-goers. But the Sanders campaign remains optimistic about its prospects.

“All the pundits are saying that young people won’t turn out. We think they will,” Symone Sanders says. “If there is a high turnout, we will win.”

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