The Memo: Sanders supporters sense victory in Iowa
DES MOINES — Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are showing a palpable confidence that he could have a big win here in Iowa’s caucuses, reshaping the Democratic race at a stroke and making him the candidate to beat.
Two of the last major polls before the caucuses have given Sanders an identical lead — 7 points — over his nearest rival.
“We will win the Iowa caucuses!” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), an early endorser of Sanders, predicted to supporters who packed a Des Moines bar just before the Super Bowl on Sunday.
At the same event, Sanders campaign national co-chairwoman Nina Turner said to loud cheers that Sanders “may be 78 but we are going to make him 46!” — an allusion to the idea that Sanders could be elected the 46th president in November.
When Sanders himself appeared, he was a good deal more circumspect, warning supporters in brief remarks about the importance of turnout. Repeating a frequent refrain, Sanders predicted that he would win the caucuses if turnout was high but would lose if it was low.
His tone also had the aim of keeping expectations in check. Sanders has emerged as the stand-alone favorite to win Iowa only relatively recently, and it could still all go wrong for him.
A convincing win for Sanders could erase the heartbreak his supporters felt in 2016, when he lost to eventual nominee Hillary Clinton by less than 1 percentage point.
That was a far stronger performance from the Vermont senator than most people would have predicted when he entered the 2016 race. But the simple fact that he lost prevented him from delivering the kind of shock that might have derailed Clinton.
It could be very different this time around.
On Saturday night, he drew more than 3,000 people to a rally in Cedar Rapids, an audience that his campaign said was the biggest for any Democrat this cycle in the state.
Sanders appears to be benefitting from a combination of grassroots enthusiasm and the organizational muscle that comes from having run a hard campaign in the Hawkeye State four years ago.
Iowa has a history of delivering surprises and this year’s Democratic race is particularly fluid because there are at least four candidates with a plausible chance of winning: Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D).
Predictions are further complicated because the final Des Moines Register poll — long held up as the gold standard in the state — was canceled because there had been at least one instance where Buttigieg’s name was omitted.
Other metrics are also difficult to decode.
Biden’s events are often low-key and lightly attended, but the older voters that make up the backbone of his support are among the most reliable caucusgoers. The inverse is true of Buttigieg: He draws large, predominantly young crowds — including about 2,000 people at a Des Moines high school on Sunday afternoon — but no one can say with confidence they will show up to caucus for him.
One of the final polls in the race, from Democratic group Focus on America, gave Buttigieg a 2-point lead over Sanders.
Jane Kim, who is the Sanders campaign’s political director in California but is in Iowa for the caucuses, declined to be drawn into a prediction of the result when she spoke to The Hill on Sunday. But she said she found it “incredibly moving to see how the country is responding” to the Vermont senator’s message.
A convincing win for Sanders on Monday night would have several knock-on effects.
It would underline his status as the standard-bearer of the left, after a long stretch when he was locked in a tough battle with Warren for that mantle.
It would position him perfectly for the New Hampshire primary, which takes place eight days after Iowa.
Sanders is already a clear favorite in the Granite State, which borders his Vermont base.
An Emerson College poll released on Monday gave Sanders a 15-point lead in New Hampshire. In the RealClearPolitics polling average, he is up by 9 percentage points in the state.
Just as importantly, a big Sanders win in Iowa would give his supporters faith that his moment has finally arrived.
If he were to win New Hampshire as well, his momentum would be difficult to halt, despite the fact that more centrist figures in the party have grave doubts about his capacity to win a general election.
Those doubts can also be heard in the media sphere. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said during a “Morning Joe” panel discussion on Monday morning that he expected Sanders to win “real big” in Iowa. But, he warned, “Bernie Sanders is not going to be president of the United States.”
Sanders supporters, naturally, see things very differently.
Sophia Rohlfsen, a student attending the Sunday Des Moines event for Sanders, said she was drawn to the senator because of his “revolutionary policy proposals” and because she found him an inspiring figure.
Concerns about his electability, she contended, failed to recognize how he was “expanding the electorate,” in part because voters disillusioned with other politicians acknowledge “he truly believes the things he says.”
If Iowans agree on Monday, they will infuse his campaign with rocket fuel.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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