by Kane Farabaugh
DES MOINES, Iowa – As a crowd filters into the Horizon Events Center in Clive, Iowa, on an unseasonably warm winter night, it appears as if they are preparing for one of the regular concerts that usually fills this cavernous hall.
But what looks like a concert, and sounds like a concert with popular singer-songwriter and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon headlining the event playing an acoustic set, is actually a campaign rally for presidential hopeful, U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders, one of the candidates leading the polls for Democrats in the final weeks of the Iowa caucuses campaign.
The event was filled with Sanders campaign signs, Sanders merchandise, and nearly 2,000 Sanders supporters, and also featured a lineup of speakers, including film director Michael Moore, and Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Pramila Jayapal.
But noticeably absent from the Bernie Sanders campaign event … was Bernie Sanders himself.
Sanders, along with fellow candidates and Senators Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Bennet, lost crucial time campaigning on the ground in Iowa while attending the impeachment proceedings of President Trump on the Senate floor in Washington, D.C.
“In Iowa, we like to see the candidates, we like to see them a lot in fact. That’s the joke both here and in New Hampshire, that they can’t decide on a candidate until they talk to a person three, four or five times,” explained University of Iowa political science professor Timothy Hagle, reinforcing the importance of personal interaction between voters and candidates ahead of the caucus. “Especially as we are in these closing weeks we like to see the candidates rather than a surrogate.”
While Sanders made a brief phone call to address the supporters at his concert campaign event, he and other candidates stuck out of state relied heavily on surrogates in the final weeks to spread their message and rally voters.
Now, with the campaign in its final days, and the Senators seeking the Democratic nomination for president now back on the ground in Iowa, both surrogates and candidates were engaged in a mad dash across Iowa’s 99 counties at events both large and small to encourage voters to show up on caucus night, where turnout is key for a candidate’s group of supporters to win the room, and ultimately, the caucus.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Hagle said. “They have to reach 15 percent to be considered viable as a group. If they aren’t viable as a group, they have to realign,” with another candidate that isn’t their top pick, but is the candidate with more support in the room where voters are meeting.
The Feb. 3 caucus night event is the first for Thomas Walker, who is unwavering in his support for Bernie Sanders.
“For my first time being there, I’m a little intimidated but I’m pretty prepared,” Walker said. “If anyone wants to try to get me over to their side, that’s great, I would love to hear what they have to say. But it would be pretty hard for me to vote for someone else at this point, I’ve pretty much made up my mind.”
It took Drake University professor David Skidmore a while to settle on his first choice: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
His second pick, if needed, isn’t as clear.
“A lot of people have remained undecided right up until, perhaps even today,” he told VOA on the sidelines of a campaign event with another contender in Iowa, businessman Tom Steyer.
“It’s very personal. It’s very open,” Skidmore explained about the atmosphere of Iowa’s unique caucuses. “Its neighbors getting together who happen to be in the same party to talk about politics and express preferences about which candidates they support. It doesn’t attract the same numbers” as a general election, he added. “Usually a caucus will get 15, 16 percent of the registered voters. It’s very different from a normal election process.”
Which is why connecting with as many supporters as possible in the final days in Iowa could make or break the caucuses for candidates in a race that is crowded at the top, with Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, former Vice President Joe Biden, and former South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg all leading the field close together in opinion polling.
Though attendance is lower compared to a general election, Iowa Democrats are still expecting higher-than-usual turnout for the race to select the challenger they believe can best defeat Republican President Donald Trump in November, and they welcome the attention the process brings to their state.“
It’s a little intimidating, just cause there’s a lot of opinions being thrown around, but I think it’s healthy as long as no one gets too angry during the process it’s a good learning experience,” said Aubrey Christensen, who is also supporting Bernie Sanders. “It’s really kind of fascinating for Iowa to be in a spotlight just cause we’re one of the states that are overlooked.”
“I think it’s nice that the people of Iowa do have a word,” Thomas Walker said. “I know that we’re right in the middle of the country, people just think of us as a corn or farmer state, there’s a lot more here than that. We have a voice, and I think it’s pretty loud, and we’re going to show it.”
“People in Iowa are practical,” former Iowa Governor and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told reporters while campaigning in Des Moines as a surrogate for former Vice President Joe Biden.
“We are the most experienced state in beginning this process. We are the state that understands and appreciates retail politics. We are the state that understands our job isn’t necessarily to pick the ‘the winner,’” Vilsack said. “Our job is to basically narrow the field so that the rest of the country has fewer choices but good choices to begin the vetting process.”
A vetting process that doesn’t slow down once a winner is declared in Iowa February 3. The spotlight then turns to voters in New Hampshire, and a primary election there a week later.
But clarity on an undisputed front-runner in the Democratic nomination for President might not occur until March 3, the “Super Tuesday” primary election, when voters in 14 states, including populous California cast ballots for their preferred nominee.
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Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America’s presence in the heartland of America.