Sanders campaign makes final push before Iowa caucuses

Bernie Sanders Cedar Rapids Iowa Vampire Weekend
Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally where Vampire Weekend also performed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Saturday. Photo by Henry Epp/VTDigger

Monday night, Iowans will head to schools, gyms, and church basements to select the next Democratic presidential nominee. For Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a victory in Iowa — where’s he’s led several recent polls — would create significant momentum for his presidential bid.

Some 3,000 people packed into an arena in downtown Cedar Rapids Saturday evening to hear Sanders and several surrogates make the case for Iowans to caucus for a 78-year-old Democratic Socialist from Vermont.

And rock band Vampire Weekend played a short set, too.

Earlier in the evening, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., summed up the stakes of the caucus.

“If we win in Iowa, we go on to New Hampshire with momentum, we go on to Nevada, we go on to every state across the country, and Iowa is going to lead the way, so Iowa, let’s win on Monday!” Jayapal said.

Sanders then delivered a standard stump speech in which he made no mention of his Democratic rivals. Instead, he emphasized voter turnout. 

If voter turnout is low, Sanders said, he’ll lose. But, he said to a cheering crowd, “if there is a high voter turnout, we’re gonna win!”

So. What does turning out Iowans actually look like?

It looks like Connor Brennan of Cold Spring, N.Y. traveling to Iowa to be "part of history" and campaign for Sanders.

It looks like Josh Andrews of Sioux City, Iowa, bringing his brother, a supporter of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to the Sanders rally.

"I just want him to come here with an open mind and just listen to what [Sanders] says, and compare it to what he believes," Andrews said.

And for Brian McLain of Ankeny, Iowa, it looks like knocking on strangers’ doors on a Sunday morning, and more specifically, a basement apartment, where a young man answered the door in his underwear and a sweatshirt.

Brian McLain Bernie Sanders Iowa volunteer
Brian McLain, who caucused for Libertarian Ron Paul as recently as 2012, became a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016 and knocked on doors for the campaign the weekend before the Iowa Caucus. Photo by Henry Epp/VPR

McLain, a 42-year-old member of the postal workers union, introduced himself as the local precinct captain for the Sanders campaign. The young man, named Matthew, didn’t say whether he’d caucus for Sanders, but McLain left a campaign flyer, just in case.

McLain was knocking on doors in his own neighborhood in Ankeny, a fast-growing suburb just north of Des Moines. It’s a mix of 1970s-era low-rise apartments and cookie-cutter housing developments that look like they were built in the last decade or two.

As recently as 2012, McLain said he caucused for Republican Ron Paul. But McLain's libertarian views shifted in 2016, he said, with some nudging from his wife. He’s since become a dedicated volunteer for Sanders, who came in a close second in Iowa in 2016.

Maybe it was because it was a Sunday morning, or maybe it was fatigue among voters who’ve been lavished with attention from candidates for over a year now, but door-knocking came with a fair share of no-answers and rejections for McLain.

One resident expressed disinterest through a closed door. McLain left a flyer on the door, anyway.

After his door-knocking shift, McLain saw a silver lining.

“We’re leaving a bunch of flyers behind, we’re making it known that we’re still out here,” he said. “And they can call us whenever if they have any questions.” 

Next up, McLain met at a coffee shop with three local Sanders volunteers who would be caucusing with him. McLain asked them to help shepherd voters toward Sanders when they showed up Monday. 

“It’s a good opportunity to make an impression right in the front door,” he said.

Andrew Long, Cassandra McDermott and Tyler Sanders (no relation to candidate Sanders) all agreed to help. Their conversation then turned to President Donald Trump, and what they saw as crossover between his voters and Sanders supporters.

Bernie Sanders campaign Iowa caucus volunteers
Brian McLain, far right, speaks with Bernie Sanders volunteers, from left, Andrew Long, Cassandra McDermott and Tyler Sanders. Photo by Henry Epp/VPR

“He tapped an electorate that had been ignored,” McDermott said. “And you know, I think a lot of those people, had Senator Sanders made the last primary, would’ve gone that direction.”

McLain used a “Star Wars” analogy to describe the Sanders phenomenon.

“It is almost like the dark side and the light side of the force,” he said. “It just exists, it just depends on what you do with it. And we want to bring it back over to the light side and actually do something good for everybody with it.”

Not everyone is sure Sanders could beat Trump in a general election, however. Medical student Ellen Voigt attended Sanders' Saturday night rally, and she wasn't convinced.

"One of the things that bothers me is, I know people like my parents don't want to vote for Donald Trump, but there's no way they're going to vote for Bernie Sanders," Voigt said. "He's too left-leaning for them."

Sanders volunteers will find out whether they’re starting on a path toward a faceoff with President Trump later Monday evening.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a partnership between VTDigger and VPR to cover Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 run for president.

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Henry Epp

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