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OPINION: Grassroots organizers like me won Sanders the popular vote in Iowa



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Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and his wife, Jane, acknowledge supporters after speaking at a campaign event Feb. 1 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at the U.S. Cellular Center. Tribune News Service

The Iowa Democratic Party finally reported all of its caucus results Thursday night. Three days after technological mishaps delayed Monday’s results, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, has emerged as the decisive winner of the popular vote. Sanders and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg finished in a near tie in the state delegate count, with Buttigieg besting Sanders by less than 0.1%.

The final results may still change. Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez called Thursday for the IDP to recanvass the caucus results, and the state party announced it would do so if a candidate requested it.

Regardless of final delegate counts, Sanders' popular vote victory reveals one of his biggest advantages in the 2020 race: the large grassroots movement working tirelessly to get him elected.

I had a chance to see this in action when I joined teachers, librarians, postal service workers, retirees and fellow students from across Indiana on Sunday in traveling by bus to Dubuque, Iowa, to campaign for him.

Canvassing was an incredibly rewarding experience. I’ve volunteered for several campaigns in the past, but Iowa was different. There was a sense of energy among the volunteers that was urgent and hopeful. I felt as if I was a part of something much larger than myself. 

What gives me so much hope about Sanders as a candidate is that he inspires broad support from people of all walks of life. I met an elderly couple supporting Sanders because of his plan to expand Social Security. A young woman told me she felt that Sanders, as the son of an immigrant, best understood the struggles of her undocumented family member. 

I learned about the opportunity to go to Iowa from fellow members of Bloomington for Bernie Sanders in January. Sanders boasted a massive volunteer team, with several thousand volunteers, including more than 50 in my group, traveling to Iowa to canvass in the days leading up to the caucuses.

The campaign office in Dubuque was completely filled with volunteers when we arrived. Local members of the Sanders campaign and the Democratic Socialists of America were present, as were volunteers from Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana. Some, like me, were seasoned canvassers with previous volunteer experience, but many were not. 

Every single volunteer came to Iowa for a reason. Mine was that I believe Sanders has a truly remarkable vision for America, especially in combating climate change and curbing U.S. imperialism.

After a quick training from campaign staff on how to convince Iowans to caucus to Bernie, we were given a list of 70 doors to knock on and sent on our way. 

It quickly became clear how much the Sanders campaign invested in the Dubuque community. Everyone who answered the door for me, even those who weren’t supporting Sanders, knew who he was and had been contacted previously. In a city of nearly 60,000 people, the campaign reaching so many people was no small feat.

In a relatively small state like Iowa, which has 3.1 million residents, campaigns can’t rely as much on television and radio ads. Candidates and their volunteers must do their best to meet face-to-face with as many potential caucusgoers as possible. 

The campaign worked hard to expand Sanders’ support in Iowa among key constituencies in the months before the caucus. One of those constituencies was young voters. Pre-caucus polling showed Sanders as the top choice for nearly half of Iowans under 50.

Sanders has also focused on organizing communities that have generally been left out of the process. The campaign estimated only 1,500 of the 80,000 Latinos eligible for caucusing did so in 2016, meaning that even a small increase in Latino turnout could make a big difference. The campaign’s efforts to organize Iowa’s Muslim population resulted in endorsements from the Muslim Caucus of America and Iowa’s only Muslim state legislator.

His endorsements from the Democratic Socialists of America, Sunrise Movement, Iowa Citizens for Community Development and People’s Action provided the campaign with even more volunteers on the ground in early states. 

In this time of voter apathy and political polarization, it is crucial for everyone, regardless of which candidate they support, to get involved. Canvass. Make phone calls. Donate a few dollars. Stop complaining about politics on social media, and start putting in the work to actually change things. 

Many campaigns are now looking beyond the early states of New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to focus on Super Tuesday states, where more than a third of Democratic delegates will be decided. Sanders already has a strong presence in these states. In delegate-heavy California, for example, he has the largest state operation of any candidate.

It remains to be seen who will win the Democratic nomination and go on to face President Donald Trump in November, but it is clear Sanders has an unrivaled grassroots organization, powered by volunteers like me, that is capable of winning the nomination.

Jerrett Alexander (he/him) is a freshman studying international relations and environmental sustainability. He currently sits on the Bloomington Commission on Sustainability.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this column mischaracterized the results of the Iowa caucuses. Shortly before publication, the Iowa Democratic Party announced final precinct results, which showed former Mayor Pete Buttigieg with the most state delegate equivalents. The IDS regrets this error.

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