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Sanders Elicits Passion, And Ambivalence, Among Iowa Voters

Iowa State University students
Henry Epp, Meg Malone
Iowa State University students (clockwise from left) Kelly Thompson, Jackson Miller, Dev Jeev Padavath, Sam Queen and Julia Nolke, all plan to caucus for Democrats in 2020.

Participating in the Iowa caucus can be more complicated than casting a ballot. So at Iowa State University on Wednesday night, about 20 students staged a mock caucus to practice the process. The names of each Democratic candidate were taped to chairs set up around a room in the student union. Students were instructed to huddle around the chair of their preferred candidate and make a brief pitch.

"He's been in Congress, um, or not Congress, in government trying to make life better and challenge corporations," said sophomore Hector Arbuckle of Sen. Bernie Sanders, before he was cut off by an event organizer with NextGen America, an organization intended to get young people involved in progressive causes.

Iowa State is right in the middle of Iowa, in Story County, which Sanders won by a healthy margin in 2016. Arbuckle was one of five students who stood by Sanders' chair. He said he likes some of the other candidates, but has more faith in Sanders.

"I'm not sure if I really trust them to stand up when it gets hard, and I feel that Bernie is going to fight for what’s right, even when it’s really difficult," Arbuckle said.

"I'm not sure if I really trust them to stand up when it gets hard, and I feel that Bernie is going to fight for what's right, even when it's really difficult" – Hector Arbuckle, Iowa State sophomore

In less than 100 days, we'll know whether Sanders wins the Iowa caucuses, the first contest of the Democratic presidential primary.  Sanders narrowly lost Iowa to Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

The 2020 field is significantly different than 2016. More progressives are running, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Her supporters made a strong showing at the mock caucus. Julia Nolke, an Iowa State sophomore, said Warren is her top choice, and Sanders is her third.

"I just don’t think he’s as electable as Warren, because they are really similar, but I think he comes off as a little more extreme to people who want to vote more moderate," Nolke said.

Students at a mock caucus
Credit Henry Epp / VPR
Iowa State University students wait for a mock caucus event to begin at the college's student union Wednesday night.

Nolke is not the only student who seems less-than-enthusiastic about Sanders. Sophomore Kelly Thompson said he was all-in for Sanders in 2016, but this year, he’s supporting tech executive and political newcomer Andrew Yang, who has proposed policies like a Universal Basic Income.

"I mean Bernie's stayed consistent throughout, but I just think Andrew Yang is a much better candidate, especially with his policies for the country," Thompson said. "I think those are a lot better at solving the actual problems that got [President] Trump into the White House in the first place."

Yet there are young voters passionate about Sanders’ presidential bid on campus. Outside the library, Michaelyn Mankel canvassed for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization pushing for leaders to combat climate change.

"He's really one of the only politicians who’s been an emblem of, like, what progressive values are, before they became politically popular or feasible," Mankel said of Sanders. She pointed to Sanders’ support for LGBTQ rights, and his plans to tackle climate change.

The Sanders campaign also has an organized presence on Iowa State’s campus. Sam Queen is part of the Sanders student group and runs their social media accounts. He said membership in the group has grown, from the single digits at the beginning of the semester to close to 40 people now.

"He's really one of the only politicians who's been an emblem of, like, what progressive values are, before they became politically popular or feasible." - Michaelyn Mankel

Queen said he grew up in a conservative family in Wisconsin, but his political views have taken a hard left turn in college. Now, he said, he’d have a hard time voting for most of the potential Democratic nominees besides Sanders.

"If it is Warren, yeah I would probably vote for her," Queen said. "I just really can’t see myself fully supporting any other candidate. I'm just so ride-or-die Bernie at this point."

The hypothetical choice of voting for a Democratic nominee other than Sanders might not be something Queen will need to tackle, if things go the way the Sanders campaign believes they will.

"As of right now, we have more people committed to caucus than we had in 2016 in Iowa," Queen said, stressing a talking point the campaign’s Iowa staff touts these days.

The campaign also points to its organizing infrastructure. In a memo in late October, Sanders' Iowa political director said the campaign has more than 100 staff in the state and 16 offices. Their plan is to bring Sanders a victory by expanding the electorate, turning out first-time voters, students and low-income residents. But they haven’t convinced everyone.

In downtown Des Moines, there are signs of the long and crowded campaign scattered about town.  A bar in the trendy East Village has signs from about a half-dozen campaigns – including Bernie Sanders – plastered to its storefront. Des Moines is in Polk County, which went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Lee Collins was visiting the neighborhood from Pella, Iowa, and said Sanders is nowhere near her top three choices.

"He’s not my favorite. My first choice is Amy Klobuchar, and my second choice is probably Elizabeth Warren, and my third choice is probably Kamala Harris, so I don’t even come to the men until after I’ve made three choices," Collins said.

Collins noted she does not need to make her mind up yet. She can even change her choice on caucus day, when supporters can work to convince other voters on the caucus floor.

For Sanders, he’ll need those strong, convincing supporters on Feb. 3. He plans to build more support in Iowa this weekend.  He's scheduled to appear at a slew of events around the state, starting Friday evening with what his campaign calls the "March To End Corporate Greed" in downtown Des Moines. Campaign officials predict a significant turnout.

Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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