Iowa Feels the Bern on Caucus Night

A cheery Bernie Sanders greets supporters Monday night in Des Moines after a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses. Photo: Jon Lemons/Iowa Informer

At the Holiday Inn by the Des Moines International Airport on Monday night, the mood is festive as Bernie Sanders supporters watch the Democratic caucus precinct results slowly add up on MSNBC. Sanders remains close but consistently trails by two or three percentage points until, with 90 percent of precincts reporting, the contest is suddenly tied 50-50. “Finally! Yes!” a young man near me exclaims along with the roar of the crowd.

Not long after, the network continues to report that the race is too close to call but also that Hillary Clinton has declared victory. With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Clinton delivers her obligatory speech at her Drake University caucus-night rally site. On stage, she avoids mention of victory but says she’s breathing a “big sigh of relief.”

When Clinton, via MSNBC, adds, “It is rare that we have the opportunity we do now to have a real contest of ideas, to really think hard about what the Democratic Party stands for and what we want the future to look like,” the crowd boos — a sign of the deep divide within the party between those who see Clinton as a tested, electable candidate and others who want nothing of her more centrist politics, corporate ties, and implied dismissals of Sanders as a utopian dreamer.

The mightiest boos are heard when Clinton says she’s a progressive — one man even letting loose a right-wing talking point, yelling, in reference to the talk of an indictment over a lingering email scandal, “It’s okay, she’ll be in jail soon enough!” — with dozens breaking into a chant disputing her reported proclamation of victory: “You’re a liar!”

But soon the mood lightens again. The chant transitions into refrains of “Feel the Bern,” the feed cuts away as Clinton ends her speech, and a commercial break begins with a Sanders campaign ad — perhaps the most striking one put out by any candidate this cycle — set to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America.”

When Sanders emerges, taking to an elevated lectern in the center of the room, he congratulates Clinton, who does win by a hair and who now receives reluctant applause, and also Martin O’Malley, who drops out of the race before the end of the night. “What Iowa has begun tonight,” Sanders says, “is a political revolution.”

The ultimate outcome of the revolution, of course, remains to be seen. For all the comparisons to President Obama’s Iowa caucus campaign in 2008, Sanders doesn’t end the night with a resounding victory, he still faces a steep uphill climb to the nomination, and his detractors fear that a prolonged primary fight could weaken Clinton and her resources and play into Republican hands against the candidate they view as the party’s inevitable nominee. Still, Monday’s finish is undeniably impressive; as Sanders notes, “Nine months ago, we came to this beautiful state. We had no political organization. We had no money, no name recognition. And we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the United States of America.”

Ross Grooters, a 41-year-old union locomotive engineer from Pleasant Hill who appears in the “America” ad with his daughter, leaves the event optimistic that the excitement of the close finish, combined with Sanders’ lead in the first primary state of New Hampshire, could still provide the candidate the momentum necessary to carry through to the nomination.

Should Clinton get it instead, Grooters is undecided on whether he’d support her, but he doesn’t have the same concern in a reverse scenario. “From what I saw at my precinct, most of the Hillary people were traditional Democrats, people that have been with the party a long time,” he explains. “I can’t imagine those people turning their backs on the Democratic Party because somebody with an FDR-era democratic socialist platform gets the nomination.”

Liv Helman, 18, traveled from South Bend, Indiana, to attend Sanders' final caucus event in Iowa. Photo: Jon Lemons/Iowa Informer
Liv Helman, 18, traveled from South Bend, Indiana, to attend Sanders’ final caucus event in Iowa. Photo: Jon Lemons/Iowa Informer

One thing Sanders can surely continue to count on is the support of young voters like Liv Helman, 18, and Joe Squadroni, 20, a couple from Indiana University South Bend who rented a van with about 10 others for a one-day stop in Iowa for some last-minute get-out-the-vote campaigning and the night’s big finale.

“It would have been nice to see a win, but this is very, very satisfying,” Squadroni says.

“It was so close,” Helman adds, “that it’s really going to give him the momentum going forward. The movement’s only going to grow.”

Gavin Aronsen
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.