A few months ago, Democrats eagerly waited for Hillary Clinton to announce her campaign for president of the United States. Clinton has an impressive resume and name recognition, and many pegged her as a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. Any suggestion that a 73-year-old independent senator from Vermont could seriously challenge Clinton may have elicited laughter from some.
Fast forward to July to see presidential candidate Bernie Sanders catching up to Clinton in the polls and drawing a lot less scorn. In New Hampshire, Clinton had a 21 percentage point lead on Sanders two months ago, but he has since closed the gap down to eight points. In Iowa, 50 percent say that Clinton is their first choice for the Democratic nomination while 24 percent name Sanders as their first choice. That’s still a sizeable gap in Iowa, but it does represent a 6-to-8 point increase for the Vermont senator.
If the polls are not convincing enough, take a look at the crowds. In Madison, Wisconsin, Sanders attracted 10,000 supporters, the largest crowd a presidential candidate has seen this year. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, Sanders met with 2,500 supporters last week. For some perspective, recall that a bit over 1,000 turned up to see then-candidate Barrack Obama in the same city in 2008, where he spoke just two days before the Iowa Caucus.
“Sanders seems to be one guy that could catch fire,” said George Ensley, acting Chair of the Boone County Democrats. “He’s really talking to the people. He’s presenting a really progressive message, the same type of message I think we felt with Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, even LBJ and Obama.”
Bernie Sanders is doing better than expected in this presidential race, but what is causing the self-proclaimed Democratic-Socialist’s rise in popularity?
For many Iowans, the Bernie-fascination is linked to his honesty and appeal to the middle class.
“Bernie’s brutally honest compared to the other candidates,” David Johnson said. “He’s unapologetic about his progressive stances. It’s really refreshing to hear that in a candidate.”
Johnson hosted Sanders at his home a few months ago. A house party usually brings in 40 people at most, but Johnson’s backyard was filled with about 200 Sanders supporters. Johnson attributes the huge crowds to the “what you see is what you get” persona that Sanders exudes.
Johnson is not the only one who sees Sanders connecting with Iowans. Rick Moyle, Executive Director of the Hawkeye Labor Council, noted he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the AFL-CIO, but he does give some insight as to why Iowans are interested in Sanders. “Thus far, Bernie’s message to working people has resonated with them,” Moyle said. “I know that the lack of growth in the middle class is a focus for him. I think the average, everyday person can relate to what he is saying.”
Moyle points out that Sanders has been discussing middle class issues for years, especially concerns about big money corrupting politics. His consistency with the issues is just one more reason Iowans seem to trust Sanders. While other candidates bemoan billionaire’s control over the government, they still accept money from Super PACs. Sanders is different. The senator has said time and time again that he will not allow a Super PAC to fund him. Many progressives have been frustrating in what they see as politicians acting as corporate puppets, but Sanders’ refusal to accept Super PAC money helps him stand out from the crowd.
Some worry that sticking to his values too stubbornly will harm Sanders in the end. “It takes 1,000 people writing $10 checks to equal one big donor, and that could hurt him,” Ensley said. “Hillary is raising a heck of a lot of money.”
It’s true. Clinton has raised more money than Sanders thus far, and she will be able to out-spend him as the race continues. But Johnson said that taking Super PAC money would harm Sanders’ credibility. “Part of the reason I think people are so dedicated to him is because of the way his stance is on money and politics,” Johnson said. “So for him to suddenly start taking Super PAC money, that would put him back into the realm of ‘oh, he’s just another politician.’”
Enthusiastic Fan Base
Skeptics have called Sanders’ followers “fanatics,” and many say the enthusiasm is fueled by a small group that will collapse under more widespread support for Clinton. “Four years ago, Michelle Bachman was very high in the polls in Iowa and won the Republican straw poll,” said Thom Hart, chairman for the Scott County Democrats. “There’s a long time and a lot to be learned.”
However, the wild enthusiasm for Sanders could help him in the Iowa Caucus. “In a caucus state, you need people who are really dedicated because unlike a primary, it’s not just a matter of ‘sure, I’ll go in and support my candidate, stand in line for five minutes, click a button and vote’” Johnson said. “In a caucus state, you have to go into a room, and they break you up into groups, and you have to stay there for 2 or 3 hours.”
“Hillary supporters are not that dedicated,” Johnson opined. “They are willing to go in and vote for her, stand in line for five minutes, but they aren’t willing to go in and caucus for 2-3 hours.
Johnson envisions Sanders picking up the caucus states. If Johnson is right, winning states like Iowa and Kansas could push Sanders even further into the national spotlight and make the media take him more seriously.
When Sanders first threw his hat in the ring, many were excited to see him push progressive ideas to the forefront. Now, they believe in more than just his ideas; they believe in Sanders himself.
“He’s capable,” Ensley said. “It’s going to turn into a horse race.”
It’s still too early in the Sanders surge to see exactly where this will end up. Hillary Clinton still has the lead, and something about her still feels inevitable. But we are willing to echo Moyle’s sentiment: “Time will tell.”
by Angela Ufheil