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Sanders Campaign Makes Final Push For Turnout As Iowans Prepare To Caucus

Bernie Sanders stands at a podium with a crowd in the background.
Henry Epp
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally where Vampire Weekend also performed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Saturday. Sanders' campaign is emphasizing voter turnout in the run-up to Monday night's caucuses.

Monday night, Iowans will head to schools, gyms, and church basements to make their choices for the next Democratic presidential nominee. For Sen. Bernie Sanders, victory in Iowa – where he’s led several recent polls– could create significant momentum for his presidential bid.

Some 3,000 people packed into an arena in downtown Cedar Rapids Saturday evening to hear Sanders and several surrogates make the case for Iowans to caucus for a 78-year-old Democratic Socialist from Vermont.

Oh, and rock band Vampire Weekendplayed a short set, too.

Earlier in the evening, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, summed up the stakes of the caucus.

People holding up Bernie Sanders signs under red, white and blue lights.
Credit Henry Epp / VPR
Some 3,000 people attended the Bernie Sanders rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa the Saturday before the Iowa Caucus.

“If we win in Iowa, we go on to New Hampshire with momentum, we go on to Nevada, we go on to every state across the country, and Iowa is going to lead the way, so Iowa, let’s win on Monday!” Jayapal said.

Sanders then delivered his standard stump speech. It included no mention of his Democratic rivals, but instead a heavy emphasis on a voter turnout.

If it’s low, Sanders said, he’ll lose. But:

" ... if there is a high voter turnout, we’re gonna win!” he said to a cheering crowd.

More from VPR –'We Could Transform This Country': Sanders Rallies The Youth

So. What does turning out Iowans actually look like?

It looks like Connor Brennan of Cold Spring, N.Y. traveling to Iowa to be "part of history" and campaign for Sanders.

It looks like Josh Andrews of Sioux City, Iowa, bringing his brother, a supporter of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to the Sanders rally.

"I just want him to come here with an open mind and just listen to what [Sanders] says, and compare it to what he believes," Andrews said.

A person stands on a sidewalk in a sunny, snowy neighborhood holding campaign flyers.
Credit Henry Epp / VPR
Brian McLain, who caucused for Republican Ron Paul as recently as 2012, became a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016 and knocked on doors for the campaign the weekend before the Iowa Caucus.

And for Brian McLain of Ankeny, Iowa, it looks like knocking on strangers’ doors on a Sunday morning, and more specifically, a basement apartment, where a young man answered the door in his underwear and a sweatshirt.

McLain, a 42-year-old member of the postal workers union, introduced himself as the local precinct captain for the Sanders campaign. The young man, named Matthew, didn’t say whether he’d caucus for Sanders, but McLain left a campaign flyer, just in case.

McLain was knocking on doors in his own neighborhood in Ankeny, a fast-growing suburb just north of Des Moines. It’s a mix of 1970s-era low-rise apartments and cookie-cutter housing developments that look like they were built in the last decade or two.

More from VPR – Henry Epp Goes (Midwest): What Do You Want To See & Hear From The Iowa Caucus?

As recently as 2012, McLain said he caucused for Republican Ron Paul. But McLain's libertarian views shifted in 2016, he said, with some nudging from his wife. He’s since become a dedicated volunteer for Sanders, whocame in a close second in Iowa in 2016.

Maybe it was because it was a Sunday morning, or maybe it was fatigue among voters who’ve been lavished with attention from candidates for over a year now, but door-knocking came with a fair share of no-answers and rejections for McLain.

One resident expressed disinterest through a closed door. McLain left a flyer on the door, anyway.

A blue and white Bernie Sanders campaign door hanger on a wooden door with a golden handle.
Credit Henry Epp / VPR
A campaign door hanger placed on the door of an Ankeny, Iowa household by Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer Brian McLain.

After his door-knocking shift, McLain saw a silver lining.

“We’re leaving a bunch of flyers behind, we’re making it known that we’re still out here,” he said. “And they can call us whenever if they have any questions.”

Next up, McLain met at a coffee shop with three local Sanders volunteers who would be caucusing with him. McLain asked them to help shepherd voters toward Sanders when they showed up Monday. 

“It’s a good opportunity to just make an impression right in the front door,” he said.

Andrew Long, Cassandra McDermott and Tyler Sanders (no relation to candidate Sanders) all agreed to help. Their conversation then turned to President Donald Trump, and what they saw as crossover between his voters and Sanders supporters.

“He tapped an electorate that had been ignored,” McDermott said. “And you know, I think a lot of those people, had Senator Sanders made the last primary, would’ve gone that direction.”

Four people stand around a table, one of whom is wearing a "Bernie" shirt.
Credit Henry Epp / VPR
Brian McLain, far right, speaks with Bernie Sanders volunteers, from left, Andrew Long, Cassandra McDermott and Tyler Sanders. They theorized how Sanders speaks to the same issues that attracted voters to Donald Trump in 2016.

McLain put it in terms of a Star Wars analogy:

“It is almost like the dark side and the light side of the force,” he said. “It just exists, it just depends on what you do with it. And we want to bring it back over to the light side and actually do something good for everybody with it.”

Not everyone is sure Sanders could beat Trump in a general election, however. Before Sanders' rally Saturday night, medical student Ellen Voigt wasn't convinced.

"One of the things that bothers me is, I know people like my parents don't want to vote for Donald Trump, but there's no way they're going to vote for Bernie Sanders," Voigt said. "He's too left-leaning for them."

Sanders volunteers and supporters will find out whether they’re starting on a path toward a faceoff with President Trump later Monday evening.

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