This past weekend saw what will likely be the largest caucus events for an individual candidate until the last several weeks before February 3. Bernie Sanders turned out crowds of over 2,000 at each of his events with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Council Bluffs, Des Moines and Iowa City.
As Ocasio-Cortez noted at the Council Bluffs rally, this was her first-ever visit to Iowa.
She should come back. Often.
Some may argue (and a few local party folks already have) that the Bronx congresswoman isn’t the best fit to win over middle-of-the-country caucus-goers. They’re wrong.
Sanders events in Iowa always have a certain boisterous life to them, filled with die-hard supporters, but the addition of Ocasio-Cortez brought something extra, and not just in the novelty that she was there.
The freshman congresswoman fired up the crowd in a way few politicians have in Iowa this year.
“When it comes to the Green New Deal, people say … how are we going to pay for it?” she said near the end of her introduction of Sanders in Des Moines on Saturday. “As though we’re not paying for it now. As though the Midwest wasn’t underwater this year! As though 3,000 Americans didn’t die in Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico! As though Hurricane Katrina didn’t happen! As though sea levels aren’t rising! As though California isn’t on fire! How do we pay for that?”
Most of the 2,000-person crowd leapt to their feet to cheer.
It’s not like Sanders himself doesn’t garner plenty of applause lines during his speeches, nor does the 78-year-old senator often lack in terms of energy or enthusiasm. But most Iowans have been listening to his stump speech for over five years now. A new take on the progressive movement from a speaker everyone wants to hear certainly helps.
“She’s young, she’s fresh,” said Rebecca Burgess, 46, of Des Moines, about Ocasio-Cortez. “She really resonates with the younger generation. They can relate to her. She’s not an older, white guy politician.”
Forrest Burgess, 25, felt the same way.
“When AOC sided with Bernie, it brought him back into the picture, especially with his health as it was,” he said. “Saying, OK, I’m still here, I’m still relevant, I’m not going anywhere.”
Others thought that Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement helped validate Sanders to fellow Iowans their age.
“I know people who are reluctant to vote for Bernie Sanders because they don’t think he’s quite enough like them,” said Isaac Throndson, a 19-year-old Grinnell College student originally from New Hampton, Iowa. “Maybe they don’t think an old white man, we’re living in the 21st century, maybe that’s not quite representative. But you’re seeing the The Squad, three out of four members saying he will fight for us, so that’s huge.”
Ocasio-Cortez also was able to accomplish quite a feat on Saturday: get a room full of left-leaning Sanders backers to cheer a line about voting for Democrats up and down the ballot.
“If you want to be worried about combatting authoritarianism in 2020, vote Democrat in 2020,” she said after a section pushing back forcefully on accusations of socialist-leaning policies being authoritarian, pointing to Donald Trump’s own actions.
That ability to tamp down concerns over a very progressive candidacy certainly is useful to Sanders’ caucus hopes, but maybe the most helpful thing is simply the ability to drive more people to events in a year where we’re over-saturated with candidate visits.
Rarely do any campaign surrogates have the kind of star power or turnout pull that someone like Ocasio-Cortez has. The few in past caucuses that come to mind were Oprah Winfrey for Barack Obama in 2007, Bill Clinton either time for Hillary Clinton, and Ted Kennedy for John Kerry in 2004.
And here’s where Ocasio-Cortez could come into play in a massive way: a possible impeachment trial in the Senate.
The way the timeline is working out right now, there’s a real chance the Senate will undergo the impeachment trial in January, in the final weeks before the Iowa Caucus. Senators are required to be there six days out of the week, which could sideline half the remaining Democratic presidential field, including Sanders.
Enter Ocasio-Cortez. No other candidate has a surrogate with as much star power as her, and she could probably draw just as many people on her own as Sanders does. This last trip already showed that.
In this scenario, while many candidates are stuck in Washington, D.C. for the trial, it’s going to be up to the surrogates to close the deal with Iowans and – most importantly – excite new caucus-goers to come out on a cold February night.
If Ocasio-Cortez hits the trail as often as possible during that final stretch, that be what what it takes to boost Sanders over some of his closest competitors.
“Originally, I was all for Warren, but lately I’ve been a little iffy,” said Sophie Tibbals, 21, of Des Moines, at the climate summit event. “But AOC’s endorsement does mean a lot to me. I really like her. She’s kickass … I’m really up in the air between [Sanders and Warren], and today with AOC just makes the decision harder.”
by Pat Rynard