DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. Elizabeth Warren aides dressed as two pennies to represent her wealth tax. Supporters of Michael Bennet carried around a giant wooden gavel to depict him pounding sense into the campaign. Sen. Kamala Harris brought a whole marching band to parade her into the fairgrounds.
But the only prop Sen. Bernie Sanders brought to the Polk County Steak Fry — eye-rollingly dubbed the “Coachella of the Caucuses” for its festival-meets-cattle-call vibe — was a wooden door.
His team propped it against a canopy tent on the fairgrounds. Then they duct-taped a whiteboard to it, to keep a tally of the thousands of doors knocked and phone calls made by campaigners who were not at the event. In contrast to other candidates’ campgrounds, which were teeming with aides and supporters, the Sanders tent was empty, suggesting a campaign in decline.
Sanders said it was all going according to plan.
“Rather than having people come out, yell and scream for you, it's more important that we are communicating with the people in the community,” Sanders told VICE News after a campaign event in Northwood, Iowa, a few days later. “We had hundreds of people out knocking on doors and on the phone, and I think it's a better use of time then yelling and screaming for me.”
But even before a heart procedure temporarily forced him off the trail, Sanders’s 2020 campaign has often felt in disarray. After his unlikely rise in 2016, this run has been beset by disappointing polling, campaign infighting, and former supporters flocking to Warren because Sanders is too old or too grumpy, too white and too male. It’s been especially noticeable here in Iowa, where Sanders’ slip to third in the polls doesn’t match the campaign’s early hype. He reportedly "parted ways" with his Iowa political director in late summer.
Sanders’s team is quick to remind cynics of his fundraising prowess, including the field-beating $25 million in donations he raised in the third quarter. (Warren hasn’t yet announced her totals; his nearest competitor, Pete Buttigieg, raised $19 million.) And the Sanders campaign says it doesn't put a lot of stock in polls because, it argues, his core supporters are undercounted. As proof, they offer 2016, when underdog Sanders came within one percentage point of Hillary Clinton.
Having been through that puts them at a better starting position this time, even taking into account the ill will left over from the ugly Clinton-Sanders fallout, according to the campaign’s senior advisor, Pete D'alessandro.
“We brought in a high percentage of people that were not your usual suspects. Well, they're on the list now. We're going to bring in the next group that aren't the usual suspects this time,” D'alessandro said. “When we find this group of new people that expand the caucus universe, we offset that other group that is never going to be for us anyway.”
Bernie Bros and Beyond
On his most recent Iowa swing, a week before the health scare, Sanders drew crowds in counties that backed President Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. He called it the “Bernie Beats Trump Tour.” But the message was the same one the 78-year-old has been advocating for his entire career: challenging every last moneyed interest in politics.
And he did it while focusing on the same motley coalition that drove his success four years ago: fresh-faced students, union workers, tattooed punks and working-class people, mostly frustrated with and skeptical of a system they’ve been asked to buy into.
“What we need to defeat [President Donald] Trump is the largest voter turnout by far in the history of this country, and that means having a candidate who runs a campaign of energy and excitement, who brings millions of people into the political process who otherwise might not be voting,” Sanders told reporters. "And I think I am that candidate."
He worked his way through crowds at two high schools, a college and several meeting centers in Northern and Eastern Iowa, taking questions but also posing them, engaging people to think through why government or corporations aren’t working in their best interests.
The crowd’s answers revealed the same disdain for institutions — the media, corporate America, and Washington politics — that fueled Trump’s campaign. That’s a big reason Sanders thinks he can swing counties that supported Trump back to the Democratic Party. Time and again you hear it from the crowd at his rallies: Bernie is the only one they trust.
Isabella Cooke, a Des Moines high school student and youth activist, watched her mom caucus for Sanders in 2016. Now she’ll be old enough to caucus for herself for the first time this election.
“I know that by putting my support in him, that I can trust that those things are going to happen,” she said, adding that she was especially drawn to his climate plan. “I think that he specifically will not back down under any other influences.”
Afterwards, his team shuttled as many Bernie T-shirt-wearing students they could to a town hall, where they were also filming a commercial. People told stories, each more devastating than the next, about how their medical debt has complicated their lives.
Yoni Libbie, who told a story about his late wife’s medical issues, said Sanders’ consistency is what attracts him to the candidate. But she allowed that it can also be a weakness.
“I like waking up in the morning knowing that the sun is going to rise in the East and I like waking up and seeing Bernie isn't going to change,” Libbie said. “It's strength but it's also probably a weakness because … they [voters] look and they go, ‘Oh, there's something new,’ and then shuffle over there.”
The Caucus Conundrum
The built-in problem of Sanders’ strategy in Iowa is that those constituencies he needs, and attracts, are the ones least likely to participate in a caucus system. A caucus requires hours of time standing in a room, which leaves some working-class people, students and the ill and infirm at a disadvantage.
To counter that, the campaign is trying to use these events and its phone app to construct “micro-communities” of like-minded Sanders supporters, who they say can hold each other accountable and help each other to show up on caucus night.
Sanders’s recent heart procedure opens up a new set of questions here, about whether he can maintain the same breakneck pace of campaign events, which has been key to his strategy to appear before as many people as possible. It may also make people even more wary of his age, especially older voters, who already have shown their allegiances lie elsewhere.
Eighty-year-old Louise Ashleson saw Sanders speak at a high school in Northwood. But she’s more of a fan of former Vice President Joe Biden. When it comes to Sanders, she’s worried about a certain word people call him.
“What do they call him? They have a name for Bernie, that he's ... He's Socialist. That's the word I'm looking for,” she said. “That's a word that bothers me. Because some of the socialist countries were not good. It can be abused.”
“We are not doing well with older people. But I think we can do a lot better."
Sanders is hoping to get around that by plugging policies seniors like, including his plan to add hearing aids, dental care and eyeglasses to Medicare coverage.
“We are not doing well with older people,” Sanders told reporters. “But I think we can do a lot better. I'm not going to say we're going to win, you know, older people by a huge vote, but we're going to do a lot better than we are right now.”
Eventually, though, Sanders is going to have to distinguish himself from Warren, who’s siphoning off his support from the left. Sanders has been reluctant to unload on his friend Warren the way he has Biden. But on this Iowa trip, the contours of a plan to overtake her as the real progressive candidate in the race began to show.
Towards the end of his swing, Sanders released a wealth tax plan that goes beyond Warren’s signature two-cents on every dollar over $50 million. He followed it up with an income inequality tax on CEOs with incomes many times higher than their employees.
When asked whether he would try to contrast himself more from Warren, Sanders was characteristically crotchety. He said he’d rather let the policy do the talking.
“The contrast is look at what I'm trying to do,” Sanders told VICE News leaving an event with union workers in Davenport, Iowa. “You hear me in there? That's what I'm trying to do. Listen to what Senator Warren wants to do. People will make their own judgments.”
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry, in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday, September 21. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)