With Momentum In Iowa, Sanders Draws Big Crowds In Small Towns

Jan 24, 2016

In one week, caucus-goers in Iowa will give a giant lift to the presidential hopes of one Democrat and one Republican. Recent polls show Vermont senator Bernie Sanders running neck and neck with his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

On Saturday, Sanders took that momentum with him to a rally in Clinton, Iowa.

Nearly 700 people packed into the Lyons Masonic Lodge Number 93 in Clinton. Sanders has pushed up the sleeves of a charcoal grey sweater, and addresses the standing-room-only crowd in the stuffy basement.

"It sounds to me like you guys are ready to make a political revolution!” he says to cheers.

The crowd here in Clinton is enthusiastic for Sanders, but there are undecided voters in the room. Even after months of intensive campaigning by the candidates known largely as “Bernie” and “Hillary,” plenty of Iowans have yet to make up their minds.

Paul Determan is one of them. He’s an engineer at a local manufacturing company who’s spent his entire life in this small working class city on the banks of the Mississippi River.

“Yeah, I’m still undecided,” he says, standing on the wide sidewalk outside the Masonic hall.

He says key issues for him include health care, foreign policy, and immigration. But for Determan, the question of electability figures foremost.

Paul Determan, an undecided voter in Clinton, Iowa, applauded Sen. Bernie Sanders at an event at the Lyons Masonic Lodge in Clinton on Saturday.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

“I’m going back and forth between Bernie and Hillary, you know, basically seeing which one is going to give us the best chance in November. That’s what I’m most interested in,” he says.

An hour and a half away is Iowa City, a liberal university town. A ballroom on the University of Iowa campus was filled to capacity when Hillary Clinton made a brief campaign appearance on Thursday night.

“You get the first chance at this – come out and caucus for me!” she told the crowd. “I’ll work as hard as I know how for you!”

Student Kaylyn Bedder isn’t totally undecided like Paul Determan – she says she’s persuadable, but she’s leaning Clinton.

A ballroom on the University of Iowa campus was filled to capacity when Hillary Clinton made a brief campaign appearance on Thursday night.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

“I just think, like, she has such a strong, like resume,” Bedder says. “And I would rather see progress made toward results than passion and hope and not seeing that materialize.”

And that’s one of the decision points for Democrats in Iowa: Go with the establishment candidate? Or vote for what Sanders’ promises will be a political revolution? 

Ann Selzer is a highly regarded public opinion researcher here. From her office in the funky suburb of Valley Junction, she generates data on the hearts and minds of likely caucus goers. 

"We have an electorate that is unsettled about the status quo, to put it mildly,” she says.

Selzer says there’s a reason anti-establishment candidates such as Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders are connecting with people this election cycle. And she says her polls indicate that voters are willing to take a risk.

"We have an electorate that is unsettled about the status quo, to put it mildly." - Ann Selzer, public opinion researcher

“People feel like they’ve nominated the traditional kind of candidate again and again and again, and then they’ve been disappointed that things aren’t changing. So there’s a real wish to shake things up,” she says. “And they're far more willing to take the risk of putting someone from the outside in, than having the same old same old same old.” 

Back in Clinton, Iowa, Bernie Sanders is deep into his one-hour stump speech, and the crowd is with him at every applause line.

The speech is long on policy – but also on politics, as Sanders mimics his detractors: “He just can’t win, he can’t defeat the Republican candidates in November.”

And then he compares himself to the candidate Iowa Democrats famously backed in 2008, then-junior Senator Barack Obama.

“Remember that? And eight years ago, Obama was being attacked by everyone. His ideas were pie in the sky,” Sanders said. “But you know what, the people of Iowa saw through those attacks then, and they’re going to see through those attacks again.”

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd in Clinton, Iowa, Sanders compared himself to the candidate Iowa Democrats famously backed in 2008, then-junior Senator Barack Obama.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

This was the first event in a four-day swing that will take Sanders through more than a dozen mostly rural towns across eastern Iowa.

A few hours later, Sanders’ blue campaign bus pulled into the parking lot of a chain hotel off Route 61 in Maquoketa.

Outside, the sun has set and the temperature is dropping a bit. Inside, the bus is a warm traveling refuge for Sanders and his wife Jane. They sit in swiveling black armchairs and face the plush bench where advisors and aides might sit for a meeting. In a few moments of quiet before addressing another crowded hall, Sanders reflected on the eight months since he launched his campaign on the Burlington waterfront.

“Well, it’s wild. You know, we have been drawing huge crowds,” he says. “And we have been drawing really a lot of people, even in very small towns.”

Small towns will be key to victory in Iowa. Each precinct carries a set number of delegates, so big turnout in urban areas alone won't lead to a win.

Those small towns will be key to victory in Iowa. Each precinct carries a set number of delegates, so big turnout in densely-populated urban areas alone won’t lead to a win.

“So what we’re doing now is running all over the state,” Sanders says. “Clinton is doing the same thing. And this is a small town. I don’t think there’s going to be a huge voter turnout. But it’s important that we win delegates here.”

In his closing remarks to the crowd in Clinton, Iowa, Sanders had issued a call to arms. He said the eyes of the world will be watching Iowa on Feb. 1, for the highly-anticipated answer to an important question.

“Will Iowa be the first state in this country to embark upon a political revolution, to lead this country in a very different direction? And you know what? I think that’s exactly what you will be doing!”

VPR’s coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.