COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Rod Sullivan was an early supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders the last time he ran for president. This time, he’s not so sure.
“I’m still shopping around,” said Sullivan, a Johnson County supervisor who introduced the Vermont independent at a campaign stop in spring 2015. “There’s a wealth of good candidates.”
As Sanders this week takes his first lap through Iowa and New Hampshire since launching another run for the Democratic nomination, the army of staffers, surrogates and supporters that propelled him to a strong 2016 showing in the early states has shown signs of splintering.
Still, Sanders begins as well positioned as any candidate to compete in the first two Democratic contests, registering strong numbers in early polls, raising heaps of cash and drawing an estimated 2,000 people to his debut here Thursday night. His advisers said they view Iowa and New Hampshire as vital battlegrounds.
“Those states are both critical, frankly, to everybody’s path to the White House,” said Jeff Weaver, a senior Sanders adviser. Vote-rich California’s decision to move up its primary makes them even bigger prizes, he added, saying, “Success in one state helps lead to success in subsequent states.”
The split-screen start to Sanders’s campaign has left many Democrats wondering whether he can harness the raw energy he previously used to propel his steadfastly liberal platform or will fold in the face of new competition and an altered campaign environment.
“I think the big issue going forward is how much of the support he had in Iowa four years ago was people that truly bought into his movement and how much of it was people who fundamentally didn’t want to support Hillary Clinton,” said Grant Woodard, an Iowa-based Democratic lawyer who worked for Clinton in 2008 and supported her in 2016.
Sanders nearly defeated Clinton in Iowa, the first caucus state. He went on to win by a wide margin eight days later in New Hampshire, the first state to hold a primary. Months of combat followed before Clinton seized the nomination.
At a rally here on the state’s western border Thursday night, Sanders framed Iowa as an important point of origin for his political rise and reflected on how the policies he championed in his last run have become more mainstream.
“Iowa, you helped begin the political revolution in 2016, and with your help on this campaign, we’re going to complete what we started here,” he said.
Like his audiences in 2016, the crowd responded with chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” They waved familiar blue-and-white signs bearing his first name.
His audience was smaller and a bit more subdued, however, than the ones he attracted last weekend in his first two rallies in the large and liberal urban centers of New York and Chicago. He drew more than 12,000 in each place, according to campaign estimates.
Weaver said the Sanders campaign has already signed up nearly 7,000 volunteers in Iowa and about 6,000 in New Hampshire. He said the team was in the process of staffing up in both states and is starting earlier than it did in 2016.
But Sanders already trails the competition in some respects. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have established the largest ground operations in Iowa, according to interviews with local Democrats monitoring the activity. Sanders, who launched his campaign after both, has yet to establish a major presence, the Democrats said.
Warren has hired Brendan Summers, who was the caucus director for Sanders in 2016. Booker has placed 14 staffers in Iowa, according to people familiar with the campaign structure.
Robert Becker, Sanders’s Iowa campaign manager in 2016, is no longer with the Sanders team. According to Politico, he has faced sexual misconduct allegations, which he denied, stemming from the earlier campaign.
“Between his money and his presence in Iowa four years ago, Sanders will be able to find staff,” said Jerry Crawford, an Iowa-based lawyer and a veteran of Democratic politics who advised Clinton in 2016, “though we haven’t seen that yet.”
Sullivan, the county supervisor who supported Sanders last time, might go in a different direction — not because he has soured on the senator, he said, but because there are so many other candidates offering something similar.
“His agenda has become the Democratic Party agenda. Almost,” said Sullivan, referencing the field’s general embrace of what were once Sanders’s signature policy positions, such as support for a Medicare-for-all plan.
“Last time was pretty unique,” he said, noting there were effectively “only two choices.”
One of Sanders’s lesser-known Democratic opponents, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, made his first trip to Iowa this week. He emphasized his commitment to addressing climate change, a topic Sanders also has underscored.
“I am the only candidate who has said, forthrightly and strongly, this has to be the number-one priority in the United States,” Inslee said in an interview when asked about differences with Sanders.
Sanders’s advisers said his campaign will try to tie his policy proposals to the personal stories of people throughout the country, in their paid advertising and social media efforts.
“It’s great to have elected officials and support in the party, but the real difference on caucus night will be people weathering a cold night to caucus with their friends and neighbors,” said Chuck Rocha, a senior Sanders adviser.
Sanders has also sought to hit more personal notes in his early speeches, a stark shift from 2016, when he de-emphasized biography in favor of focusing on his policy proposals.
However, he has largely kept voters at a distance, opting to do large rallies while other candidates have tried to introduce themselves and make a connection with voters in more personal venues.
Sanders was scheduled to do four rallies in Iowa and New Hampshire from Friday though Sunday. Weaver said he was also expected to do more-intimate events in coming days.
“I don’t know how that’s going to play this time,” former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan, who said she is not a Sanders fan, said of his big events. “Everyone else is out there doing town hall meetings and house parties and retail stuff.”
Sanders’s 2016 victory in New Hampshire, and his familiarity as a neighboring-state senator, could give him a home-field advantage of sorts. But now he must also contend with Warren, who has a similar liberal message and who also represents a Granite State neighbor.
“When they are campaigning in other regions of the country, the Boston media market, which is a New Hampshire media market, covers their visits, so they get a lot more news coverage,” said Jim Demers, a veteran Democratic strategist in New Hampshire who is supporting Booker.
Like Democratic leaders in Iowa, those in New Hampshire said they do not sense a big Sanders campaign presence in their state. But some argued he doesn’t really need one.
“Bernie has a hardcore circle of supporters that have been meeting monthly for the last four years,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley. “So having that sort of structure doesn’t need a physical office, doesn’t need a huge staff.”
South Carolina is expected to vote after Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton defeated Sanders there by a wide margin in 2016, appealing to the state’s Democratic majority of African American voters, whom Sanders struggled to attract. Six in 10 Democrats in the 2016 primary were African American, and Sanders won only 14 percent of them, according to exit polls.
This time, with two African American candidates in the race — Booker and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) — South Carolina could be just as daunting a challenge for Sanders, putting an even bigger premium on performing well in the first two states.
As he concluded his speech in Council Bluffs, Sanders tried to get supporters to envision him winning, confidently suggesting that victory is on the way.
“When we, you and I, are in the White House — although I do admit it will be a little bit crowded in the Oval Office,” Sanders said, “we will enact a federal jobs program to guarantee that everyone in this country gets a stable job.”