Facing Bernie’s Political Revolution, Clinton Aims to Avoid Second Iowa Upset

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Chicago artist Rob Hogan paints a Bernie portrait at the candidate's New Year's Eve bash in Des Moines. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

Five hours till the new year and another 32 days until Iowa’s leadoff caucuses, Bernie Sanders makes a lofty pitch to the hundreds of revelers gathered in the ballroom of the Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel who #FeelTheBern. “In the coming month, we need you to reach out to your friends and your neighbors and your family members, drag them into the caucus,” he says, to excited laughs, in his distinctive Brooklyn accent. “Let’s win this caucus, and let’s go forward in making 2016 a year that people, for hundreds of years from now, will remember as the year we transformed America. Happy New Year!”

It’s been eight months since the self-identified democratic socialist from Vermont exploded onto the presidential campaign circuit, drawing enormous crowds on par with those of Barack Obama when he erased Hillary Clinton’s perceived inevitability in 2008, leaving her a distant and unexpected third in the Iowa caucuses before he went on to trounce John McCain in the general election. Many Sanders supporters now see clear parallels with that history-making election cycle, with their candidate even outpacing individual donor records set by the president during his two White House campaigns.

Ash Bruxvoort, a 26-year-old writer, sustainable farmer, and “avid supporter” from Altoona, is hanging out in a lobby adjacent to the second-floor hotel ballroom. She’s optimistic about Bernie’s odds, mentioning his fundraising numbers as a reason why, and also what she believes is a growing number of progressive youth voters in the country. (Regarding fundraising, Sanders reached the million online donors mark faster than Obama in ’08, and in late December the campaign announced it had surpassed the 2.2 million overall donors to Obama’s re-election campaign by the end of 2011.) Bruxvoort has voted for president twice before, both times supporting Obama, and with that in mind, now says, “I think that the momentum’s growing, and honestly, I think that if Bernie wins the caucus in Iowa he’s going to win the nomination.”

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Three and a half weeks later, in an exclusive interview with Politico‘s Glenn Thrush, Obama himself casts doubt on the comparison to Sanders — “I don’t think that’s true” — although perhaps not entirely, if you read between the lines. “Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete long shot and just letting loose,” Obama says. “I think Hillary came in with the both privilege — and burden — of being perceived as the front-runner. … You’re always looking at the bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before — that’s a disadvantage to her.”

Either way, with the caucuses quickly approaching Monday evening, Sanders and Clinton appear to be deadlocked in Iowa, for whatever the polls are worth (in ’08 for Clinton, not much). Meanwhile, Sanders has a comfortable lead in the first primary state of New Hampshire and is narrowing the gap nationally, too. Still, Clinton remains the odds-on favorite to secure the nomination; aided by outside money groups, she has raised more than double what Sanders has, and she is backed by virtually the entire Democratic establishment.

Clinton surrogates have been out in force this month for the former first lady. On the 23rd, Cecile Richards, president of an embattled Planned Parenthood, is hosted by Hillary HQ in Ames, where signs on the wall read, “Pant suit power” and “Teamwork makes the dream work.” The daughter of the late feminist and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Cecile praises Clinton’s history of support for women’s rights, including legislation she introduced in the Senate to promote health issues. “The stakes, my friends, are very, very dire for women in America,” she says. “When we’re looking at what the folks who are running the Republican Party are trying to do to roll back women’s healthcare, this is a pivotal election, whether you care about the Supreme Court, the rights of future generations, access of folks to affordable, high-quality healthcare that is their right, this is an election we can’t afford to sit back [during].”

(Two days later, a Texas grand jury assembled to investigate Planned Parenthood reaches a decision concerning an undercover video recorded by a group called the Center for Medical Progress, and much-ballyhooed by GOP presidential contenders, that purported to show the organization profiting off sales of fetal tissue from aborted fetuses. The grand jury clears PP of wrongdoing, instead indicting the video’s creators for tampering with government records. In a twist of irony, CMP Director David Daleiden is also charged for attempting to purchase fetal tissue.)

“In Ames High, you can’t turn your head without seeing a Bernie sticker.”

Mirroring national trends, many local Democratic leaders are backing Hillary, including Ames state Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, who comes to listen to Richards speak. Also present, from northwest Iowa’s O’Brien County, is Kim Weaver, the latest candidate to take on the nigh impossible task of unseating Congressman Steve King. As a member of the Democratic Party’s State Central Committee, Weaver says, she’s promised not to publicly announce yet the candidate she’s supporting, but has this to say: “Bernie has a lot of following from people who have not been active in the party and want to make great big changes. Hillary Clinton has a history of working with people and getting things to actually happen. I’m a problem-solver at my job — I go to nursing homes and investigate complaints — and I don’t want to just talk about we could do this and we could do that; I want to talk about this is what we can do and we can change it today.”

Amy Welch and Charlie Bruner, a former state legislator and current director of the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines, host another Clinton event at their home in Ames Sunday evening. Jamie Lee Curtis, who made her film debut four decades ago in John Carptenter’s Halloween and currently stars on the Fox horror comedy series Scream Queens, is scheduled to arrive with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the politician appointed to fill Clinton’s seat after she left Congress to become secretary of state. Instead, because of the snowstorm that’s hit the East Coast, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar stands in for Gillibrand.

As the six-dozen guests await their arrival, they are invited to sample hors d’oeuvres including asiago rosemary biscuits and, for dessert, Duff Goldman’s Good-Ass Fudge. Among the guests is Jill Zmolek, an 18-year-old senior at Ames High School who’s at her first caucus event (“It’s never a bad note to have Jamie Lee Curtis showing up — that definitely helps my initiative but I wanted to come anyway”) and, bucking the youth trend toward Sanders (“In Ames High, you can’t turn your head without seeing a Bernie sticker”), is leaning toward Clinton in part because of her political experience.

When the guests of honor arrive, Curtis also speaks of the candidate’s experience. But before that, she launches into a lengthy personal backstory about how she chanced first upon acting and then upon her husband of 32 years, Count Rugen Christopher Guest. She’s more than a Hollywood stereotype, she tells her audience — citing as supporting evidence J. Edgar Hoover’s confirmation to Lyndon B. Johnson that an FBI background check on her mother came back “absolutely clean” — before describing how she’s a voracious reader. Special Topics in Calamity and Physics, Marisha Pessl’s breakout 2006 novel, is a personal favorite. “In the middle of the book there was this quote, and it changed my life,” Curtis says, reading:

“It’s kind of funny, the moments on which life hinges. I think growing up you always imagine your life — your success — depends on your family and how much money they have, where you go to college, what sort of job you can pin down, starting salary. But it doesn’t, you know. You wouldn’t believe this, but life hinges on a couple of seconds you never see coming. And what you decide in those few seconds determines everything from then on. … And you have no idea what you’ll do until you’re there.”

Bernie supporters, no doubt, would argue that the quote could be more sensibly applied to a relative political outsider who grew up in a family of modest means and is now engaged in a surprisingly popular attempt to harness the zeitgeist and foment a “political revolution” than to Clinton, a Yale-educated former first lady and United States senator raised in a well-off, politically active (albeit conservative) household. But Curtis relates the quote to a hypothetical Clinton presidency, arguing that she is the battle-tested politician who’s pushed back against Republicans’ efforts to impugn her credibility over Benghazi and would make the sorts of informed, split-second decisions needed to change the country for the better.

A former barber shop, Sanders’ tiny Ames outpost is nestled between the main entrance to the historic Sheldon Munn and the House of Hair salon on the 300 block of Main Street. It’s an appropriate spot: Among those who are part of the downtown nightlife subculture here, it’s tough to find anyone who doesn’t support Bernie. (Clinton’s much larger office is less conveniently located just a few hundred feet to the south, across the train tracks that cut through the center of town and across the street from the Romantix porn shop, along a block with buildings commonly rented out to temporary political causes.)

A couple hours after Cecile Richards finishes stumping for Clinton, DG’s Tap House — a bar on the 100 block of Main Street managed by Informer editor Nate Logsdon — opens its doors for Ames Shreds for Bernie, a fundraiser featuring five local bands including the aptly named Underdog Story. Griffen Clark, the 22-year-old Iowa State University senior who organized the event, says it raised $575 from cover charges.

“Bernie is a good senator, an interesting guy, combs his hair just right, has the GQ kind of look, buT he is going to be a fringe candidate.”

Two days later, Clark is one of about 70 ISU students sitting behind a lectern on the stage of the C.Y. Stephens auditorium awaiting Bernie’s noon arrival. More than 1,000 people, mostly Iowa State University students, pour into the building as other students, undeterred by a dramatic tent fire, continue their weeklong campout in front of the nearby Hilton Coliseum for the men’s basketball game against the rival Kansas Jayhawks. (Impersonating Ben Carson, comedian Tim Meadows sings the national anthem at the game that evening before the Cyclones take advantage of a second-half surge to bury the Jayhawks.)

At Stephens, near one of the auditorium’s entrances, a long shot challenger for Chuck Grassley’s Senate seat is making the most of the opportunity to let potential supporters know he feels the Bern.

“Hi guys, can I give you a card? I’m Tom Fiegen. I’m running for the United States Senate. I’m a Bernie supporter.”

Two people, looking for seats, walk by, one responding to Fiegen by saying the friend she’s with already grabbed a flier that she’ll take a look at. (If she does, she’ll notice that Fiegen proposes Bernie-esque policies ranging from labeling GMOs to busting up big banks.)

“Thanks for sharing. These cost 38 cents each.”

When Sanders arrives, he delivers a rousing address familiar to anyone who’s been following his campaign, pledging, for example, to fight for the middle class by raising the minimum wage to $15, take climate change seriously (he’s the only candidate who’s voiced opposition to the Bakken pipeline project), and take pot out of the federal Controlled Substances Act (read our story about ISU’s beef with a pro-pot student group here).

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“What the political revolution is about is having people stand up and say,” Sanders says, cueing the audience to join in, “‘Enough is enough!'” He goes on: “We have got to have a government in Washington which represents all of us, not just a handful of billionaires.” Then he takes a self-deprecating dig at his naysayers, adding, “When we began this campaign, what people said was, ‘Well, Bernie is a good senator, he’s an interesting guy, he combs his hair just right, he has the GQ kind of look, but despite that he is going to be a fringe candidate.”

Sanders also makes a pitch for free college tuition and the crowd cheers, “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” waving signs reading “Vote Bernie to end student debt” printed by National Nurses United, a union group whose super PAC has actually spent more money supporting Sanders — nearly $1 million — than any backing Clinton so far. The difference, Sanders later tells reporters, is that “Hillary Clinton goes out raising money for her own super PAC. I don’t have a super PAC, and in the best of all possible worlds, which I hope to bring about, we will get rid of super PACs, we will overturn Citizens United.”

Caught up in the excitement of the Bernie-Hillary showdown, it can be easy to forget that there’s still a third Democrat running for president this year, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who barely registers in the polls. Still, this close to the caucuses, just about every candidate’s drawing big crowds, and on Wednesday evening O’Malley packs the Torrent Brewing Company in downtown Ames to its 157-person capacity.

After what I’m later told is an unsuccessful plea to the bar’s owner, who’s trying to be diligent about the fire code requirement, to let more people in, O’Malley makes his way through the crowd, stopping to pose for a selfie with 21-year-old supporter Karina Mendoza of Marshalltown before stepping on top of a chair, mic in hand, to address his audience.

He slams the “fascist appeals” of Donald Trump and Gov. Terry Branstad’s willingness to cut education funding in Iowa. Politically, he positions himself somewhere between Sanders and Clinton, touting his record as Maryland governor on issues including abolishing the death penalty — something he’s criticized Clinton for opposing — and strengthening gun control laws — over which pro-O’Malley super PAC Generation Forward has criticized Sanders. Like Sanders, he also voices support for a $15 minimum wage, in contrast to the more cautious hike to $12 preferred by Clinton.

When the stump speech ends, I ask Mendoza why she’s an O’Malley supporter. An immigration activist who protested outside a Trump rally in Marshalltown the day before, she explains that she initially supported Sanders before learning about his 2007 vote against a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which he justified at the time in terms of the impact immigrant job-seekers might have on American workers. But O’Malley’s record on immigration as governor, including his support for DREAMers — undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children — has earned him praise from the Latino community, which Mendoza believes will translate into a strong showing for him at caucuses in towns like Marshalltown with sizable immigrant populations. “That’s why I admire him a lot,” she says, “because he’s not only saying things right now but he has the background to prove that he can do it.”

Our conversation is interrupted by O’Malley himself, who, right in front of us, gets up on another chair, guitar in hand, and breaks out a respectable rendition of Greg Brown’s “The Iowa Waltz.” After he’s done entertaining the crowd with song, he orders a blonde ale, a popular choice at Torrent. Later, after I wrap up a separate conversation, I notice he’s still here, no longer surrounded by a crowd of voters and about three quarters of the way through his glass.

“We usually like to not do interviews with the beer in the hand,” his handler laughs when I approach, hoping I won’t ask any questions, but O’Malley allows for one. I ask him about his expectations for Monday and he sounds genuinely optimistic. He’s traveled to 67 counties in Iowa and says he’s excited about the caucuses. “I believe in that last forum, where we got equal time, people realized for the first time that they don’t have just two choices, they have three,” he adds.

I follow up with a quick question about the Democratic National Committee’s obvious Clinton favoritism, demonstrated by its scheduling of debates on days when television audiences would be smaller. Would his campaign be in a different position now, had that been handled differently?

“I think we would have been picking up a lot earlier. I think they were so obsessed about…” — he pauses for a full 10 seconds, seemingly mindful of the reminder that he’s been drinking — “…keeping a viable alternative from emerging that they gave rise to a two-person race. That does not bode well for the general.

“There we go,” he concludes, turning to his handler. “That was safe.”

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.