If Sen. Bernie Sanders prevails in next week’s Iowa Caucus, it’ll be thanks in part to a little help from his friends. Stuck in D.C. during most weekdays in the final two weeks by the Senate impeachment hearing, Sanders is leaning on his significant stable of popular progressive surrogates to both rally voters in his stead and help supercharge the events he’s in the state for himself.
This past Thursday through Sunday, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brought her political star power back to Iowa, joined at most events by filmmaker Michael Moore. The two were at about ten Iowa campaign events between the two of them, usually together, and adding Sanders from mid-Saturday to Sunday evening. Well-known musical acts pumped up the crowds at some of their bigger rallies.
With Iowa polls rolling in many times over the past few days, almost all of which showed the Vermont senator in the lead, Sanders’ camp is starting to feel good.
“We are taking on the Democratic establishment, and all across the country, let me tell you, that the big money interests are getting very nervous. They’re looking at recent polls in New Hampshire and in Iowa and they’re saying, ‘Oh my god, Sanders can win,’” Sanders said, Saturday night in Ames.
Moore and Ocasio-Cortez used similar rhetoric throughout the trip, warning that corporate media, moderate Democratic candidates and even Donald Trump would all have to acknowledge the strength of Sanders’ campaign soon.
“I hope to be back here next Monday night for our victory celebration,” Sanders said Sunday afternoon in Storm Lake.
Two Surrogates, Two Target Audiences
Ocasio-Cortez and Moore don’t at first seem like the most obvious campaign duo.
Moore, a 65-year-old award-winning filmmaker from Detroit, came to prominence with his award-winning documentaries from the late 1980s through early 2000s. The 30-year-old congresswoman rocketed to fame a little over a year and a half ago, and has quickly become a top national leader for diverse, young progressives across the country.
In practice, however, Ocasio-Cortez and Moore make a great tandem. Just listen to them speak for their five-to-ten-minute pitch for Sanders, and it becomes clear why they’re together. With both of their pitches combined, they’re able to appeal and reach just about anyone in a Sanders audience.
Moore is very animated, and he targets his pitch mostly to the older voters in the room. He frequently asks those closer to his age to recall how the government helped them while they were getting educated and entering the workforce.
Despite depictions in Republican ads and conservative media, Ocasio-Cortez is much more reserved in person. She gives her pitch in a calm, subdued manner, methodically pointing out economic inequities and the importance of having a bottom-up revolutionary movement.
“These stances being seen as so radical says much less about us than what it says about the status quo,” Ocasio-Cortez explained at one stop. “We need to understand that it is a choice. It’s a choice to live like this. We can choose to not; we can choose to live another way. We can choose to make health care a human right and we can choose to save our planet, but we have to change our values. We have to put humans before profits.”
Moore’s speech centers around Bernie’s record, his career’s work, and his consistent history as a human rights advocate and elected official. His goal is to build the ethos for Sanders as someone who is reliable.
“Bernie is so consistent, he’s stood up for every group that doesn’t have it as good as the group on top. With Bernie Sanders, what you see is what you get,” Moore explained in Storm Lake. “He won’t change once he gets in office. Bernie cannot be bought; he’s too old to change his ways now.”
Moore’s Ask Of Older Voters
But Moore does something else that is effective. He appeals to the people in the room who are of his age or older. Moore is able to talk about the benefits that people like him benefited from as they grew up.
In Ames, Iowa, where the campus for Iowa State University is located, Moore asked people in the crowd over the age of 50 to shout out what they paid per semester for college.
“$1,200! … $200! … $800! … $50!” people yelled out.
“Fifty dollars for a semester? If I was these kids behind me I’d be lunging from the seats right now!” Moore proclaimed. “We have put young people in a debtor’s prison! These young people are not free!”
With little tangents like this, Moore tries to get older voters to understand why college-aged people in the U.S. are so frustrated with their economic standing, simply by comparing it to their life. He also noted that kids now do not have the freedom to find their true passion.
“We handed them a system where they don’t get to live their lives and figure out what they want to be,” Moore said. “No, get a job now! It doesn’t matter if you like the job, you’ve got to start paying off that student debt!”
“I ask my fellow Boomers to vote with their children,” Moore pleaded.
AOC: The Millennial Messenger
Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, has a broader message about banding together to sustain a movement that pursues rights for everyone. And she delivers that message in a much more heartfelt manner, making the emotional appeal.
“None of us are going to be able to achieve a collective improvement unless we achieve that collective improvement together,” she explained to the crowd. “The answer is not to compete in our interests, the answer is solidarity, and the answer is to adopt each other’s interests.”
Several times over the weekend, Ocasio-Cortez told a story about her first few months in Congress. She was sleeping on an air mattress, as she didn’t have enough money saved up yet to afford two furnished apartments, one in her district and one in D.C.
She would walk to work every day and find herself disappointed in the rhetoric she heard, with her colleagues telling her that Medicare for All, a $15/hour minimum wage and the Green New Deal were all too radical.
Another story she told was of how she couldn’t even afford a blood test with her health insurance and instead had to wait hours in a free clinic; she was running for Congress at the time.
“The type of shift we’re fighting for will never happen from the top down, it can’t,” she said. “We need to get real about a lot of these issues. And getting real on these issues means we have to take on some of the most powerful interests in this country: Wall Street, big pharma, fossil fuels, the for-profit prison system, all of it.”
She emphasized all the ways people in America are united and she focused on the issues people share, like whether or not they can afford life-saving medication, breathe clean air and drink clean water.
“I’m proud to be part of a movement that acknowledges each and every person’s humanity and affirms our dignity, and that’s what we have to work for, that connectedness,” she said. “When you fight for someone you don’t know, someone you don’t know will fight for you.”
She also encouraged people who can’t caucus to make it easier for those who can, like babysitting their neighbors’ kids, giving people rides, making them food, or just buying them a beer – any way to make it easier for others to participate.
The Iowans who attended the events recognized the approach, too. And they widely approved.
Linda McMahan, from Sioux City, said that she and her husband were excited to see Moore and Ocasio-Cortez out in their area.
“No one is talking about some of this stuff still, it’s so great to see them out here. Michael did a great job bringing up issues like Flint,” McMahan explained. “I mean, imagine watching your kid drink that stuff. We’re just so much further behind as a country than we should be on so many things.”
McMahan said that their two sons were also excited to see Ocasio-Cortez in Iowa, hoping that she would continue to lead the party with a progressive message and platform.
“I think she’s going to be president some day, I bet that’s why she’s out here,” she said. “She’s the next generation of this movement, so it makes sense for her to come out now, get to know the people, and lay that groundwork.”
The McMahans saw how well the three (Sanders was at this event) worked together in succession, noting that they could capture different groups of people; others agreed.
“I think it’s a good way to address the same sort of issues from three different vantage points, which helps to widen the message to a wider audience that may be on the fence,” said Joshua Jeun at Sanders’ event in Ames.
Jeun said Moore could speak to the people who belong to further left ideologies in the party, while Ocasio-Cortez could bring in people of color and younger voters.
“I think there’s a lot of metaphor and symbolism involved in having those two as proponents for Bernie’s message,” Jeun said.
For Pam Hutchcroft in Ames, the surrogates were her reason for being at the event. She drove up from Indianola to see them.
“I agree with what they’re saying,” she said. “Something has to change and it has to change dramatically, because we can’t continue with ‘oh well, we’ll work on this’ or ‘we’ll work on trying to change.’”
Hutchcroft has seen Sanders before, at an event he did at Simpson College in December, and she’s enough of a fan to serve as a precinct captain.
And for her, the surrogates’ messages make sense, and they strike to the core of the people-focused movement Sanders has been building since 2015.
“I can’t disagree with any of it,” she said. “Yeah we have to work together to get to where we want to go. And if you work together you can accomplish what you need to, better than an individual.”
By Nikoel Hytrek and Josh Cook