Is Iowa on the Verge of a Trump Victory?

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Bernie Sanders Saturday at the Scheman Building in Ames. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

During a final pre-election stump speech in Ames Saturday, this time for Hillary Clinton, his rival in the first-in-the-nation Democratic caucuses, Bernie Sanders made an impassioned case to Iowa voters to reject a bigot at the polls Tuesday and prevent the state’s six electoral votes from being awarded to Donald Trump.

“We cannot have a president who has made the cornerstone of his campaign bigotry,” Sanders said on a second-floor lobby of the Iowa State Center’s Scheman Building. “This country has traveled a very long and rocky road for hundreds of years, in which good people have fought, and sometimes died, and sometimes have gone to jail and sometimes been lynched and sometimes been beaten, in order to say that we will — to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr. — we will judge people not by the color of their skin, not by the country that they come from, but by their character.”

Sanders went on to condemn Trump for his leading role in the birther movement based on the “outrageous lie” that President Obama wasn’t born in the US, for calling Mexican immigrants rapists, and for his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country.

“It’s not only racism that we’ve seen against African Americans, or against Asian Americans, or Latino Americans,” he said. “A hundred years ago, 80 years ago, it was like, ‘Irish not wanted,’ ‘Italians not wanted,’ ‘Jews not wanted.’ We have come a long way in this country that we look at each other as human beings, not as a nation in which we divide each other up.”

The lines received rousing applause from the several hundred people in attendance. But that night, the Des Moines Register published the results of a poll it commissioned from Des Moines-based firm Selzer & Co. showing Trump up 7 points on Clinton, twice the poll’s margin of error. By Monday evening, polling guru Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, which has correctly predicted the outcome of every state’s presidential results since 2008, had Trump’s chances of winning the state at 70 percent.

Iowa can sometimes appear to be a perplexing study in contrasts. Purple politically but lily-white demographically, the state voted for the nation’s first black president in the previous two elections and long before that became the second state to allow interracial marriage in 1851, granted African Americans the right to vote two years before the adoption of the 15th Amendment in 1870, and passed one of the nation’s first civil rights acts in 1884. The state also took early steps toward women’s rights and well over a century later, in 2009, became one of the first states to allow same-sex marriage.

Yet for years now, Iowa has had one of the worst records in the nation on racial disparities between blacks and whites in its criminal justice system. Since redistricting in 2012 that grouped the relatively diverse and progressive city together with deeply conservative western Iowa, Ames has been represented in Congress by Steve King, who openly spouts hardline nationalist rhetoric and said it would be “racist” (and “sexist”) to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. He also displays a Confederate flag on his desk while serving a Union state that lost over 10,000 men who fought for the cause of abolishing slavery. King is the overwhelming favorite this year in his latest bid for re-election against Democrat Kim Weaver.

Sunday in Sioux City, on the opposite end of King’s 4th Congressional District, Trump made his final campaign stop in Iowa. There, he repeated a populist pitch that’s appealed particularly to white working class voters, telling his audience that international trade deals and illegal immigration were responsible for worsening their economic woes.

“The media and the political elite don’t know the pain and suffering these people are living under, but I figured it out a long time ago, and that’s why I’m here with you,” Trump reportedly said.

At the rally, he also cited the Selzer poll showing him up 7 points in the state. “They said: ‘Mr. Trump, you don’t have to, you’re leading by so much,'” he gloated about his last trip here. “I said: ‘What do you mean I don’t have to go to Iowa?’” Apart from whatever it is that allows Trump supporters to forgive their candidate for his bigoted remarks, Ann Selzer, the woman who conducted the poll, had said part of reason for Clinton’s struggles was the difficult time she’s had convincing younger Sanders caucus-goers to support her.

That point was clear Saturday in Ames when Kaleb Vanfossen, president of the ISU Students for Bernie club, was invited on stage before Sanders’ arrival to give remarks on his support for the Democratic Party’s nominee, in light of what some Bernie-turned-Hillary supporters would argue is the existential threat to the nation Trump poses. His speech began on point as he discussed the problem of student loan debt, drawing anxious laughter when he suggested that Trump, a “part-time reality TV show star and full-time bigot,” was “failing to even talk about this issue” because he was too busy disparaging immigrants.

Then Vanfossen went sharply off-script. “Unfortunately, Hillary doesn’t really care about this issue either,” he said. “The only thing she cares about is pleasing her donors, the billionaires that fund her election. The only people that can really trust Hillary are Goldman Sachs, Citigroup can trust Hillary, the military-industrial complex can trust Hillary, her good friend Henry Kissinger can trust Hillary.”

To confused murmurs and more than enough cheers and applause to discomfort Clinton supporters at the rally, he continued as a man emerged from backstage to usher him off the podium: “She is so trapped in the world of the elite that she has completely lost grip of what it is like to be an average person. She doesn’t care. Voting for another lesser of two evils? There’s no point.”

From a balcony above, a Jill Stein supporter recorded a video of Vanfossen’s remarks that has now received nearly 1.2 million views after it was uploaded to YouTube with the hashtags #BernieOrBust, #JillNotHill, and #DropOutCrook:

Before Sanders took the stage, he was introduced by Matthew Goodman, a former Ames council member, small business founder (whose experiences in the restaurant business have given him views different than Sanders’ on the living wage), and member of a recently formed local advocacy group called the Ames Progressive Alliance.

During his introduction, Goodman referred to the earlier “excitement” Vanfossen caused by explaining to applause why he supported Clinton. “We are all changing, every second of every day,” he said, “and the campaign that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders engaged in together — competed in, a long time ago, a year ago — that campaign shaped both people. And I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton is a different person as a result of the passion and commitment he spoke and worked for.”

Three minutes later, Goodman welcomed Sanders, whom he called “the progressive change-agent of my lifetime,” to the stage. “We love you, Bernie!” a woman in the crowd yelled as soon as he appeared — another sign that many Iowa Democrats remain far more enthusiastic about Sanders than Clinton.

Outside Scheman, I spoke with Matt Glasgow, a 29-year-old graduate student at ISU who didn’t sound convinced Clinton would win the state. “We’ve been talking about how we’re kind of increasingly nervous, especially, like, with polling and how the media’s framing the emails and things,” he said. “So I think it’s important for Senator Sanders to come to campus and get the youth excited and make sure we get a high voter turnout, because Iowa is going to be pretty critical.”

Clinton is favored to win Tuesday’s election regardless of the outcome in Iowa. For Trump, Iowa is a must-win swing state.

Glasgow was leaving the event with Camille Meyers, another 29-year-old grad student who, like Glasgow, supported Sanders in the caucuses. Now, Meyers wore a “Nasty Women Vote” button, a reference to an insult Trump hurled at Clinton during the third presidential debate between the two candidates. “It’s kind of scary, actually, to think that so many people — like my neighbors — could be supporting Trump and the rhetoric that he stands for, the ideals that he stands for,” she said. “That is frightening to me, that people I live with and call my neighbors might believe the things that he does, and might act on the rhetoric that he is spouting.”

Meyers said she had already cast an early vote for Clinton. The typical advantage Democrats have in turning out the early vote is lagging considerably behind what it was for Obama in 2012, despite what an optimistic flyer mailed out last month by the state party reading, “Iowans are voting early in record numbers this year” would have you believe. But the advantage still exists, and some observers believe it could be enough for Clinton to beat the odds and save Iowa Democrats the embarrassment of seeing the state affirming the campaign of a man whose campaign, as Sanders said, has been based on a cornerstone of bigotry.


Correction: This post originally said Nate Silver had predicted the results of just one state’s presidential vote wrong since 2008. He hasn’t predicted any wrong.

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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.