Since launching his candidacy for president last May, Sen. Bernie Sanders has watched his poll numbers explode. But Hillary Clinton continues to hold a major advantage with the black and Latino voters that will be key to winning the Democratic nomination. Sanders says he’s convinced he can close that gap.
And so we headed to Waterloo to talk to a few of the Iowans Sanders is working so hard to win over.
One of our first stops in town was Cottonwood Canyon, a cheerful café on Fourth Street.
All three Democratic contenders – Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders – have campaign offices on this street.
But the seven women laughing over breakfast at the large corner table aren’t too caught up in campaign politics. Laroia Vanardsdale, a pediatric nurse, is one of the women at the table.
“It is important, but it’s not a passion,” says Vanardsdale.
Their group includes five women of color and two white women, most of whom are moms. One of them is bouncing a baby on her hip as they eat. We ask what they think of the candidates, starting with Hillary Clinton:
“I’m not swinging her way right now,” says one of Vanardsdale's friends.
“I have no definite candidate right now," the woman says.
“He’s okay from what I’ve seen,” adds another woman at the table. “But I’m still trying to figure out who I’m going to choose.”
The women tick through the issues that matter most to them. Finances are top of mind, nodding their heads in agreement about people living paycheck to paycheck.
Vanardsdale picks up from there:
“Just the amount of people in jail, how many blacks are in jail compared to how many whites are in jail, women and men,” says Vanardsdale. “Just the violence, you know, of cops killing blacks, and cops killing people in general. What happened to shoot to—“
One of the other women at the table interjects, “injure instead of shoot to kill. Or, is it that serious that you have to bring out your gun and shoot?”
“Just to kill ‘em every time. I don’t think that matters anymore,” Vanardsdale adds.
The women agree the candidates are not really working on these issues, they're just trying to get elected.
Sanders is a 74-year-old senator from one of the whitest states in the nation. So far, he’s doing pretty well with voters that look like he does. But he has faced criticism that he isn’t connecting with voters of color who play an influential role in Democratic politics.
Frederico Chavez is a 64-year-old retired administrative law judge from Berkeley, California. He disagrees with the idea that Sanders isn’t clicking with voters of color.
Chavez is standing in the Sanders campaign office in a strip mall about a mile outside downtown Des Moines.
He’s been in Iowa for two weeks, on his own dime.
“It’s what I do when an election comes around,” Chavez says. “I find which candidate I believe has the right message and that could help the Latino community.”
And Chavez says that candidate is Bernie Sanders.
“Political revolution in the Latino community is not scary,” he explains. “Because we come from a tradition that that’s what we had to do to change the society that was oppressing our ancestors.”
Chavez is trying to mobilize Latino Iowans for Sanders. But are his efforts making a difference?
That will be impossible to determine until Monday night. Because when it comes to predicting which candidates minority voters will show up for at a caucus, the data isn't there.
Ann Selzer is highly respected public opinion researcher in Iowa. She says that when researching Iowan caucus goers, minority populations are statistically speaking, difficult to separate out.
“It’s not a substantial part of our state,” Selzer explains. “So, we can’t really take a look at them separately…There’s not enough of a base in our poll of 500 people. We won’t have enough non-white people to enable us to say, how does their vote look? Does it look any different?”
Only about 5.6 percent of Iowans are Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census figures. And fewer than 4 percent identify as black or African American.
Selzer says, with a sample of people so small, the margin of error is just too big.
Chavez says that doesn’t mean minority caucus-goers won’t play a critical role on Monday.
“Maybe we’re not a big number here, maybe we’re not a big percentage of the population in Iowa,” Chavez says. “But we have to let our presence be known by participating in the electoral process.”
And Sanders’ performance among minority voters in Iowa could set the stage for primaries coming next month, where voters of color make up a much larger proportion of the electorate.
Sanders says he’s optimistic.
“We have been working very hard in states like South Carolina and Nevada,” Sanders says. “As we speak there are people making telephone calls, knocking on doors. And I think we are going to surprise a lot of people in those states.”
And he says that a February surprise could reshape contests on Super Tuesday in March.
Note: Before heading to Iowa, we asked our audience for their questions. Chris Robbins of Middlebury sent us this:
"Iowa is always portrayed as a white state. But it has minority populations that the media always ignores. I once lived in Waterloo, Iowa, and I know there's a vibrant black community there. Why don't you pay them a visit?"
VPR’s coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.