Bernie Sanders has talked to a whole lot of people in Iowa. On Sunday he passed the big milestone of combined Iowa turnouts of 50,000. It happened at a notably smaller and more subdued conference room at Upper Iowa University, filled with about 300 people. But, true to form, the event was still very good for the town of Fayette, population only 1,300.
The rally Sanders held right before that in Decorah may go down as one of his most impressive of the presidential campaign. In the gymnasium at Luther College stood over 2,200 people, all crammed in to see Sanders speak in the northeast Iowa town of 8,000. It had the look and feel of Barack Obama’s Iowa rallies in the final stretch of the 2008 caucus, and was maybe even larger than that.
There are some important caveats to that number, of course. Some people have gone to see Sanders two or three times, so that number of 50,000 is combined turnout size, not actual unique persons. And many of his events near the Iowa border are attended by plenty of non-Iowans who drive long distances to see Sanders. At the Decorah event I walked two rows of cars in the parking lot. 65 out of 160 cars I counted had out-of-state plates (including one from Canada!), so about 40%. But even then it’s important to remember many could have been from college students attending Luther who can caucus, and that even 60% Iowans at a 2,200 turnout in a town of 8,000 is insanely impressive.
No matter how you slice it, the sheer number of people Sanders has spoken to in person is groundbreaking. The overall caucus turnout for Democrats in 2008 was nearly 240,000. This time people are predicting a number somewhere between the 2004 turnout and 2008’s. If 175,000 come out for the 2016 caucus, and Sanders has spoken to let’s say a conservative 40,000 unique Iowans, then nearly a fourth of all caucus-goers have seen him in person.
It should also be noted that Sanders’ Iowa events have not been limited to large rallies alone. His campaign team has smartly mixed in smaller round tables and constituency outreach events on his Iowa travel schedules. He’s met with Latino activists, held a seniors meeting at a Newton seniors center, visited the Mesquaki settlement in Tama and walked a picket line in Cedar Rapids, among other unique events.
As the national press scrambles to figure out how Sanders has come so close to upending Hillary Clinton in Iowa, these turnouts are a stark reminder that it never should have come as a surprise in the first place. On Sanders’ first trips to Iowa as a candidate, back when he only had one staffer here, people were consistently turned away from meeting rooms that turned out to be surprisingly too small for the just-announced candidate.
As he traveled the country, the mega-rallies Sanders attracted in places like Madison and Portland pointed to a real movement taking hold. Many had their doubts, however, that the excitement for Sanders’ political revolution would spread beyond the liberal enclaves and college towns. Or that the people of Iowa would get so swept up in the craze.
But a crowd of 2,500 in Council Bluffs for Sanders in early July (a larger turnout than what Obama got there in the final week of the 2008 caucus) was the first to raise the real possibility that Sanders could attract a wave of new support here. When Sanders drew a crowd of 300 in the northern Iowa town of Kensett for a party fundraiser, Kurt Meyer called the Clinton campaign to famously tell them, “objects in your rearview mirror are closer than they appear,” as the New York Times reported.
Most notable was Sanders’ trip around Labor Day in early September, where he visited smaller towns in southeastern and central Iowa. I wrote one of my best pieces about that 3-day campaign swing, where it became readily apparent that Sanders’ appeal was widespread and taking root even in rural and conservative areas.
The other big surprise was that the momentum never slowed down. Sanders didn’t have a peak and resulting decline in interest. It speaks to how social media has sustained interest in Sanders despite a lack of national media attention.
As Sanders nears an upset win over Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, many pundits are starting to criticize the Clinton campaign for not taking the Sanders threat seriously enough or for not hitting him much earlier on. I’m not so sure if I agree with that – Clinton has campaigned hard in the early states and wasn’t taking anything for granted, she just simply didn’t go after Sanders early on in her messaging. Considering some of their criticisms now seems to have little effect on Sanders, that might actually have been the right choice.
What’s more confusing is how so few others saw this coming. Campaign strength can be a tricky thing to judge from the outside. How many volunteers an operation has, how good their staff works together or what voters are really thinking about the candidate is difficult to ascertain if you’re not in an actual campaign office. But when a candidate like Sanders consistently turns out huge crowd after huge crowd, for months and months before the first caucus, it’s like they were shouting from a megaphone, “We’re here, and we’re not going away!”
Now people are finally listening.
by Pat Rynard