With nine days remaining until the critical Iowa caucuses, Sen. Bernie Sanders returned to the Hawkeye State on Saturday in search of the delegates he’ll need to win the nation’s first presidential primary.
At a town meeting in the small city of Clinton, Iowa, Saturday afternoon, Sanders told supporters that people across the nation will be watching the state closely next Monday for the highly anticipated answer to an important question.
“Will Iowa be the first state in this country to embark upon a political revolution, to lead this country in a very different direction? And you know what? I think that’s exactly what you will be doing,” he said.
Sanders once trailed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by more than 50 points in Iowa, but recent polls show the Vermont senator running neck and neck with his Democratic rival.
His four-day swing in the state includes stops in more than a dozen mostly rural communities. And a Sanders aide confirmed Saturday that the campaign will begin airing a new television ad in Iowa on Tuesday.
In an interview with Vermont Public Radio Saturday evening, Sanders said the nature of the caucuses means his support needs to be geographically broad in order for it to result in victory. Each precinct carries a set number of delegates, so turnout in each precinct reaches a point of diminishing return.
“And so we’ve been focusing on a lot of small- and medium-sized towns to make sure that we’ve got a decent number of delegates in all areas of the state,” Sanders says.
Clinton, Iowa, is a small city of 27,000 and named for the sixth governor of the state of New York. About 700 Sanders supporters packed into the carpeted basement of a Masonic Lodge there, located a couple hundred yards away from the banks of the Mississippi River.
In a well-worn, hour-long stump speech, the Democratic socialist doubled down on some of the same proposals – free college tuition, Medicare for all – that critics say would become a liability in the general election.
“Something is fundamentally wrong when the middle class continues to decline, when people work longer hours for lower wages, and when almost all new income generated today goes to the top one percent,” Sanders told the packed room. “And I know this a radical idea, but people are saying, and we are saying, ‘How about creating an economy that works for the middle class, not the billionaire class?’”
As the race in Iowa tightens, Clinton has sharpened criticism of Sanders, suggesting that things like a public health care system are a populist fantasy.
“I’ll tell you, I’m not interested in ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in the real world,” Clinton said at an Iowa rally earlier this week. Clinton surrogates, too, have expressed concern about Sanders’ electability. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill told the New York Times last week there’s a reason the GOP has targeted its criticism exclusively at Clinton.
“The Republicans won’t touch him because they can’t wait to run an ad with a hammer and sickle,” McCaskill said.
Sanders addressed those appraisals head on Saturday. He cited recent polls that show him defeating Republican candidates Donald Trump or Ted Cruz by higher margins of victory than Clinton would in the general election. And he said he doubts voters will find anything “radical” with policy reforms that benefit low- and middle-class Americans.
He acknowledged the expense involved with proposals like free tuition at public universities. But he said he thinks voters can get behind his plan to pay for the $70 billion that particular plan would cost: a tax on “Wall Street speculation.”
"You were kind enough to bail out Wall Street when their greed and illegal behavior helped destroy our economy,” Sanders said to loud cheers. “Now, it is Wall Street’s time to help the middle class of this country.”
While Sanders gains traction in the largely white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, pundits say the 74 year old’s path to victory in more diverse early primary states, like South Carolina, is less clear. During a brief interview on his campaign bus, Sanders told Vermont Public Radio he’s confident that as more voters tune in, his record on issues like criminal justice reform and immigration will resonate in the communities he’ll need to win the nomination.
“We have been working very hard in states like South Carolina and Nevada. As we speak, there are people making telephone calls, knocking on doors,” he said. “And I think we are going to surprise a lot of people in both of those states.”
And Sanders went to lengths Saturday to compare himself to the insurgent candidate who came out of nowhere to win Iowa in 2008.
“It really reminds me very much of what happened here in Iowa eight years ago. Remember that? And eight years ago, Obama was being attacked by everyone. His ideas were pie in the sky,” Sanders said. “But you know what? The people of Iowa saw through those attacks then, and they’re going to see through those attacks again.”
Sanders has scheduled events in four Iowa towns Sunday.
VPR’s coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.