Why you should care
Because there might be magic on them cornfields.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
A goofy-looking outsider alights in Iowa; he doesn’t have a chance. He’s terrific, mind you — speaks his mind, galvanizes folks — but he’s just not electable. And then, over the weeks and the months, amid the frost-covered cornfields and single-stoplight towns, a kind of alchemy takes place. When the man leaves Iowa, he’ll be the candidate to beat, and the little flyover state will have launched him through the convention and into the White House.
Sound familiar? Bernie Sanders sure hopes so.
With one week to the Iowa caucuses, the Vermont senator is gaining big in Iowa — and gunning hard for the mantle of President Barack Obama, who eight years ago gathered so much momentum here that former aides say he still reminisces about it. The lore is that Iowans’ seal of approval transformed the gangly first-term senator into a candidate who had to be reckoned with. And indeed, before 2008, many people balked at the notion that the United States was ready for a Black president, or that Obama could achieve anything in the “very white state” of Iowa, as Sanders reminded a boisterous crowd in Clinton, Iowa, on Saturday. “You made it happen,” Sanders said. “You made history.”
We feel pretty good about the unique campaign we’ve built.
On the face of it, it’s an odd comparison. Sanders is combative and gruff on the campaign trail, railing against one “obscenity” or another and openly calling his audience to revolution. Eight years ago, by contrast, Obama was suave, smiley and sensitive, and careful not to come off as an “angry Black man.” Besides, it’s Sanders’ rival, Hillary Clinton, who held a premier cabinet position in Obama’s administration and carries his imprimatur; she’s positioned herself as the better steward of his legacy. Robert Becker, Iowa director of the Sanders campaign, acknowledges some similarities, but says his man’s strategy stands alone: “We feel pretty good about the unique campaign we’ve built.”
Yet despite the differences between Obama and Sanders — their miens, their coalitions, their backgrounds — the two men share a few important traits, and it shows in the gathering halls of Iowan towns. For starters, their opponent was an establishment figure in ’08 and even more of one now. Let’s face it: Underdogs thrill in a way that a two-time presumptive nominee never could. “When I first heard him speak, I was transfixed,” says Colleen Kasbohm, a 47-year-old comptroller who, upon discovering Sanders, found herself attending rallies and donating to a campaign for the first time in her life. She was pleased that Sanders’ rally was standing-room only, she says, because “the more people learn about him and what he’s for, the more viable he becomes.”
Some of Sanders’ rhetoric and narrative techniques recall those of Obama too. Channeling a little “Yes We Can,” Sanders tells his audience that democracy is their responsibility and that they’ll all have to pitch in after the election. “Change always comes from the bottom up,” he told the hundreds sweltering in their winter boots in the basement of a Masonic lodge on Saturday. Invoking progressive gains like the advent of collective bargaining, civil rights and women’s rights, he said, “That’s what history is about. It’s not a few people at the top coming up with clever ideas.”
Clinton’s pitch, on the other hand, has focused more on the candidate’s record of working for Americans. She is “fighting for us,” her slogan says, not with us. Part of the reason is that Clinton has gads more executive experience to draw on than Sanders; on the stump, she weaves it in frequently. She tells stories about dealing with national-security threats, reminds audiences that she was the first to advocate for healthcare and vows to work fiercely on their behalf.
Recent polls are all over the place, and the Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but this much is incontestable: It’s very close, and Sanders has made significant gains against Clinton, who held a sizable lead only a few months ago. But to capture some of Iowa’s magic for himself, Sanders will need to replicate Obama’s massive turnout in 2008. That year, 240,000 Iowans turned up at the Democratic caucuses, nearly twice that of 2004 and several times more than the number in 2000.
“Iowans feel really proud of having ushered in the Obama presidency,” says Arun Chaudhary, who worked on Obama’s campaign in 2008 and now is creative director of Revolution Messaging, a political consultancy that’s working for the Sanders campaign. Obama, meanwhile, retained an affection for Iowa well into his presidency, ending his 2012 reelection campaign in Des Moines with tears in his eyes. Every January 3, the day of the 2008 caucus, the president would rewatch a video of his going out to the caucuses in Ankeny, Chaudhary says.
No one knows whether Sanders will be reminiscing about Iowa campaign videos eight years hence. But even if he succeeds in Iowa, he’ll have to confront a quadrennial question: How much does Iowa’s endorsement really matter to the rest of the country? Winners of Iowa’s democratic caucus have often gone on to win the nomination, but not always, and there are limits to how far Midwestern magic can travel. Says John Nichols, a caucus precinct captain who introduced Sanders on Saturday: “It’s kind of crazy, the amount of attention we get — even though we’re just a little corn-fed state.”