Central Iowa got a lot of love from Bernie Sanders on his latest 4-day swing through the caucus state, with Polk County seeing the Vermont Senator at a number of venues around the metro area. Sanders held two large rallies, one in Ankeny and one on Des Moines’ East Side, along with a Latino round table event and a forum with students at Hoover High School. He also spoke to Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement’s Putting Families First conference at a church by Drake University, and later attended the Brown and Black Forum on campus.
Candidates very rarely hold two major rallies in the same county over a two day stretch, so it was an interesting look at just how big of a push Sanders is making for Iowa’s largest county. Most political insiders expect Sanders to do well in Iowa’s more liberal eastern half, likely putting up good margins in Johnson, Scott and Linn counties. The Sanders campaign says they feel confident in all areas of the state, but Clinton still will probably take the advantage in many western and rural counties. So a big win in Polk County, home to the most state delegate equivalents by a large margin, will likely be key to Sanders on caucus night.
“You find me another presidential candidate who will do a large crowd event, back-to-back nights, in the same county,” Robert Becker, Sanders’ state director, told Starting Line after the Brown and Black Forum. “We did it for two reasons: one, we knew we could do it, but two, we’re specifically targeting at the precinct level … from a field organizer perspective we were targeting Ankeny and we were targeting East Side.”
There’s plenty here in Polk to provide Sanders with some opportunities, chief among them the amount of young people, more evenly dispersed among precincts here than in college towns. It’s also home to many diverse communities, an area that Sanders struggled with early on in the campaign, but is starting to make inroads into, especially the African American community. Sanders was extremely well-received by the crowd at the Putting Families First conference, attended by many African American activists. A chant of “Where is Clinton?” broke out at one point in frustration of Clinton’s absence there.
Sanders has also kept an eye on the Latino community here with his round table visit on Saturday. They’ve become increasingly more politically active and are specifically focusing on turning out more Latinos to the caucus this year.
And the campaign itself has literally placed their organizing efforts right in the heart of Des Moines’ minority community.
“For starters, our state headquarters is in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the state,” Becker said. The main Sanders office is located next door to a Hy-Vee on Martin Luther King Parkway and Euclid, a mostly-African American neighborhood.
Becker also indicated they’re organizing some of the refugee communities that most campaigns too often forget about.
“We took a couple shots at the Governor when he announced he wasn’t going to take Syrian refugees,” Becker said. “Very cognizant of the openness Iowa has always shown since Governor Ray to refugees. The Bosnian community, the Sierra Leone community, Somalian community. These are folks who are now actively starting to get engaged in politics.”
Polk County itself has a mixed record in supporting the outsider candidate. In 2004 John Edwards took the county in an upset over John Kerry with 38%, while Howard Dean brought in 15%, three points under his statewide average. But in 2008, Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in Polk by 39% to 28%, a slight over-performance from Obama’s statewide numbers.
Sanders doesn’t have the backing of the labor unions that count many members in Des Moines, and many of the local long-time activists are on board with Clinton. Martin O’Malley also commands a strong and loyal following of many key Polk County volunteers. But Sanders still packs his office with plenty of volunteers every day. And even those with less experience are still making important connections.
“I’ve done some canvassing – it’s interesting, the first time I walked around my neighborhood I realized how many people I have a connection with,” Robert Espe, a professional musician who moved to Des Moines two years ago, said as he volunteered in the Sanders office Tuesday night making phone calls. “I got involved as a volunteer here because this is the first time I felt compelled – I’m young, but as I’m getting older the more I realize how important it is to participate. Sanders seems to be the one actually looking out for most of us.”
With only two and a half weeks left to the caucus, Sanders may not be back to the Polk County area as much after barnstorming it this past week. His campaign, however, has to feel good about what they saw in the large crowds they continue to turn out in this all-important county.
by Pat Rynard