“How are you?” he said to a surprised-looking family under an Iowa State tent. “Thank you!” he told a man who said he'd caucused for the senator from Vermont in 2016.
After Sanders walked on, the real work began. Dozens of campaign organizers ran up to anyone who'd taken a sticker, or a sign, or had simply shaken the senator's hand. “Are you a Bernie supporter?” they asked. If they got a yes, they opened their Bernie apps, got the supporters' names (“R-A-M-O-S”) and Zip codes, then raced up to the next potential Bernie fans.
This is the Sanders's campaign's new organizing tactic, from a campaign that can't try enough new things. “Distributed organizing,” when it works, trains volunteers to do the work that used to be centralized by the campaign: contacting a voter who just happened to shake the candidate's hand could lead to a non-answer, a vote or a new organizer. Over two boiling summer days, the campaign signed up 1,004 voters along parade routes, all on the path toward a single goal: turning as many nonvoters as possible into Sanders voters. Do that and the old notions about how to win Iowa would fall away on caucus night. If it doesn't work, he doesn't win; if it does, Democrats will see that only one candidate can reshape the electorate, win the nomination and win the presidency.
“A lot of the folks who we work with may not have a strong voting record, and that's exactly why we want to get them involved,” said Misty Rebik, the campaign's Iowa director. “I can't speak to who the pollsters are calling, but I definitely know they're missing our people. Our people aren't going to show up if they're screening for 'likely' caucusgoers.”
Squeezed by voter skepticism about his “electability” and by the rise of younger Democrats who've adopted his most popular ideas, Sanders is betting on tactics that often confound his rival candidates. There is a tried-and-true way to win Iowa, improved on every four or eight years by new technology. Campaigns build enormous staffs, assign them to different counties or regions, and amplify what their candidate does on his or her visits to the state. Week by week, they identify voters who say they'll caucus for them; eventually, they'll rank the voters on a scale of 1 to 5. The "1's” are voters who are locked in, who simply need to be reminded to show up; the "5's” are not going to vote for them.
The Sanders campaign talks a little differently about its supporters. Last month, Sanders announced that "25,000 Iowans have already signed up to volunteer for our campaign,” a measure of support that no other campaign was using. The campaign's “distributed organizing” technique, pioneered in 2016 but deployed only after primary voting began, was going to create a network of activists reaching voters that the campaign itself never could — doing things such as capturing the name of people who cheer for Sanders in a parade and sending their names back to HQ.
“The volunteer is a little stronger than a 'one,' because these are folks who said they will do at least one action, or they will do at least one campaign shift,” said Pete D'Alessandro, who was the campaign's Iowa coordinator in 2016 and works as a senior adviser now. " 'Ones' are what wins it, but these are 'ones' who say, yes, I want to invest in this campaign, and my friends will see me doing it.” The 1 to 5 scale remains helpful, but a dramatic new style of reaching voters could reach beyond it.
“We use every opportunity to be in touch with people as an organizing moment,” Rebik explained. “We're asking people what motivates them to be involved, using their own personal stories to connect it to an issue in this campaign, then training them like community organizers and giving them skills. We're super committed to creating a long-term structure in this campaign that survives well beyond any election.”
The new Sanders ideas are being put into action at a moment when attention is drifting away from Sanders. Last month, he delivered a tight debate performance that got overlooked in the fracas between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. His favorable numbers with all voters and with Democrats, once the strongest of any candidate, have slowly declined since his February campaign launch. In an average of recent Iowa polls, Sanders is backed by 16 percent of Iowa Democrats; at this time four years ago, the same poll average put support for Sanders at 20 percent, en route to 49 percent on caucus night.
To the supporters of other Democrats, it's clear that Sanders has faded. The "25,000 volunteers” number is widely seen as naive; other campaigns sign up thousands of potential supporters and stay in touch with them, but don't count up hard supporters this far from the caucuses, knowing how frequently some voters change their minds. Campaigns have their own grass-roots events — Elizabeth Warren's campaign has organized trivia nights and coffees for interested Democrats — to meet voters who are likely to stay engaged; compared with that, turning a friendly voter at a parade into a sure-thing caucus-goer sounds naive.
But the Sanders strategy assumes that almost anyone who does not tend to vote can become a Sanders voter. It grows not just out of Sanders's own politics but also decades of efforts on the left to connect people who tune out politics — disproportionately coming from the poor or the working class — to a campaign.
In Iowa this week, every Sanders event was designed to prove that theory. At visits to new campaign offices in Des Moines and Ames, Sanders gave short speeches asking supporters to “build an unprecedented grass-roots movement” that could “take on the greed of the powerful.” After he wrapped, district organizers asked the hundreds of people packed into the rooms to start volunteering, and lower-level staff and volunteers fanned out with clipboards, offering more than a dozen opportunities to help.
“Raise your hands right now: Who is ready to sign up to canvass?” asked Sanders's north central Iowa field director, Gabe Hodgkin, after a July 4 Sanders visit to the Ames office. Dozens of hands shot up. "Who is ready to sign up for phone bank shifts?" Fewer hands shot up. "Last but not least: We will be canvassing right after this event. Who wants to come with us?" Just a few hands shot up, but by this point, volunteers were also urging the people who'd been stuck outside the crowded office to help, right away.
“Distributed organizing” got off the ground relatively late in 2016; Claire Sandberg, the campaign's national organizing director, has said that the team in charge of it was not fully in place until a few weeks before that year's Iowa caucuses. And although no one denies that Sanders turned some nonvoters into supporters, numbers don't necessarily prove its efficacy. The 2016 primary actually saw lower Democratic turnout than the Obama-Clinton contest eight years earlier. In California, one of the later 2016 primaries where the organizing strategy was deployed, the total Democratic vote pushed past the total turnout from 2008. Sanders lost. In Indiana, another state where the campaign had time to work, Sanders pulled out a surprise victory. But only 638,799 total votes were cast, a 50 percent drop in turnout from 2008.
Another problem, far off in the distance: Democrats have replaced most of their state caucuses with primaries. Sanders approved of that trend, but it could hurt grass-roots campaigns such as his and help campaigns that use more traditional methods of contacting reliable primary voters.
But Iowa comes first, and in Iowa, the goal is transforming voters into activists. When Sanders stopped by the Ames office, he briefly met Shannon Leacox, 29, who with her husband Mark, 32, had organized a watch party for Sanders's big April speech at which he announced the distributed organizing strategy. Sixteen people showed up, they said, and most left after downloading the Sanders campaign app, which would get them regular updates about how to help, or about political and economic actions in their communities.
“I just showed up for the caucuses last time,” said Leacox, who had supported Sanders. “I didn't do any organizing. We wanted to make sure this watch party wasn't something where people got a piece of paper, then threw it out.”
Four hours later, Mark and Shannon Leacox joined the team at the Windsor Heights parade, walking more than a mile in punishing heat to collect names. Shannon collected 12, which impressed her: “I'm not really a salesperson, you know?" When the parade was over, a smaller group of Sanders supporters began to canvass a food truck festival, and Leacox helped the rest find their cars. There were seven months to go before the caucuses, and she had given Sanders a boost — but she knew that at least one other campaign would try to win her over, and she was open to it.
“It comes down to campaign financing, corporate donors,” she explained. “Both Bernie and Warren have been against that.”
How a shaky candidacy that didn't seem to have a theme or ground game is using its momentum from Miami.
“Warren and Harris rise in Democratic primary, challenging male front-runners,” by Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin
Over the past few weeks, the combined support for Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders has edged downward while the two most prominent women in the race have moved up. Why? Voters are tuning in and checking their initial expectations about who could win.
“Democratic hopefuls pledge to make education a priority — and to spend more money,” by Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Valerie Strauss
A rundown of what the 2020 candidates promised the National Education Association.
Two years ago, Collins was welcomed back in Maine as the hero who stopped the repeal of Obamacare. Things have changed, but how much?
ON THE TRAIL
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — On Saturday, 30 people gathered in a library meeting room to meet Joe Sestak, by some counts the 25th Democrat to declare his candidacy for the White House. Sestak had met some of them before.
“You were sitting to the left!” Sestak said to Buzz Pounds, a Democratic vice chair in nearby Delaware County, recalling the exact staging of the party meeting that the two-term congressman had shown up for. “Good to see you,” he told an environmental activist who looked familiar.
Sestak, who announced his presidential campaign June 23, had hunkered down in Iowa ever since. He had marched in multiple parades and shown up at any local Democratic meeting that would welcome him, which turned out to be all of them. When the national media showed up to a picnic where Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was the star, Sestak was there, too. This was the theory of the campaign: Go everywhere, meet as many voters as possible and wait for the moment when it clicks.
“We're building a beachhead and deploying,” Sestak said in an interview, celebrating his campaign's frugality and hustle. “We're staying at a wonderful place called Econo Lodge, and we got a good deal, because they're undergoing construction.”
As Sestak waited for campaign staff to arrive in Iowa, the lingering question was whether Democrats really wanted to hear from yet another candidate for president. In the early stages of the race, every Democrat got a warm reception, a decent crowd and some encouragement from activists excited to see an alternative to the Trump presidency.
The early stages are over, and the race has clearly separated into two groups. The first consists candidates with the money and support to build ground operations: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Beto O'Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O'Rourke, Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson. Some have larger staff than others, some have skeleton crews, but all are visible on the ground; Williamson, going a step further than Sestak, has moved to Iowa.
The second group consists of candidates who show up to events and do interviews with the media but have not put together a serious multicounty campaign. Sestak, who says he waited to announce anything until his daughter was winning her battle with cancer, is in that group. Traveling with one aide, he distributed 40,000 campaign fliers at the parades, many by himself, all paid for with a credit card.
“I probably shook about half the hands at those parades,” he said.
Sestak, whose political career was thought to be over when he lost a 2016 primary for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, is running on a pragmatic liberal agenda that doesn't seem out of place in 2019. Like most candidates, he stops short of full single-payer health care now and wants a “public insurance option” on the road to a national system. Like every Democrat, he calls for rejoining the Paris climate accord and restoring America's role in the world. His stump speech swings between his biography, defined by decades in the Navy, and statistics about the competitive and warming planet. (The Cedar Rapids event, organized by local state Sen. Rob Hogg, was supposed to focus on climate change.)
“The only reason China became the sweatshop of productivity they are now is that they got air conditioning in their southern provinces,” Sestak explained. “When you become middle class, the first thing you get is a cellphone; the second thing you get is air conditioning.”
National Democrats, surprised that Sestak is running, have largely ignored him. In 2010, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee helped draft Sestak into the Senate race; asked for a comment about his presidential bid, a spokesman for the liberal group declined to comment. Sestak is unlikely to reach the polling or donor threshold to make the debates, but he has strong opinions about last month's debate: “When they asked them to raise their hands if they wanted to get rid of private insurance, I'd have said, 'You're asking the wrong question.' "
If he did make the stage, Sestak would join the critics of Joe Biden. The former vice president worked twice to stop Sestak from winning the Democratic Senate nod in Pennsylvania; Sestak said he was not fixated on that but was worried about how wrong Biden had been in the past.
“I think Democrats such as Vice President Biden who voted for that tragic situation in Iraq, and who have never been held accountable, have to answer for themselves,” he said. “I think they have to be held accountable for helping to dismantle the safeguards on Wall Street. And I think Anita Hill deserved a more respectful hearing than the one she got.”
Sestak's presentation lasted just an hour; he stayed for 15 minutes to talk to voters who wanted to share their own ideas for cleaning up the climate or who simply wanted to meet a high-ranking admiral. He had more campaigning to do in Iowa, and then it was off to New Hampshire.
2020 Democratic primary (Washington Post-ABC News, 460 Democrats)
Joe Biden — 25% (+8)
Bernie Sanders — 18% (+7)
Kamala Harris — 9% (+5)
Elizabeth Warren — 9% (+5)
Pete Buttigieg — 3% (-2)
Beto O’Rourke — 1% (-3)
Tulsi Gabbard — 1% (+1)
Amy Klobuchar — 1% (+0)
Andrew Yang — 1% (+1)
Marianne Williamson — 1% (+1)
Julián Castro — 1% (+1)
This newsletter is skeptical of national Democratic polling, because the results of the Iowa caucuses always reset the board; there is no “national primary.” But the way The Post asks this question is unusually helpful. Here, likely Democratic voters were asked who they support, without being prompted by the names of candidates. For the first time this year, a majority of these voters actually have an opinion: The largest number of them support Joe Biden, and, among the others, only Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris record significant support.
2020 general election (Washington Post-ABC News, 1,008 adults)
Joe Biden — 55%
Donald Trump — 41%
Kamala Harris — 51%
Donald Trump — 43%
Elizabeth Warren — 51%
Donald Trump — 44%
Bernie Sanders — 51%
Donald Trump — 45%
Pete Buttigieg — 48%
Donald Trump — 44%
The Post asked two versions of this question, another one focused on only registered voters, which saw the Democrats' margins over President Trump shrinking and Biden alone leading the president outside the margin of error. Among all voters — millions are likely to register before November 2020 — the president remains less popular than he was on inauguration day but more popular than he was when the congressional GOP was trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
What matters about these polls, months before voting begins, is whether campaigns cite them to prove that they can defeat Trump. After two rough weeks, the Biden campaign has fresh evidence that voters would prefer him over Trump; that's the rationale for his campaign. The Sanders campaign, which has been on an “electability” push since before the debates, gets less to work with. On the tighter screen, with registered voters, Sanders does no better than the rest of the top non-Biden tier. On the wider screen, it's the same story: Everyone defeats Trump anyway. The Sanders campaign has been waiting for a moment when Biden looks weaker and voters are searching for the most “electable” alternative. Polls like this don't help with that.
DEMS IN DISARRAY
On Saturday, Joe Biden did what he said there was no reason to do: He apologized. In Sumter, S.C., at the start of his third campaign trip to the state, Biden told a mostly African American audience that he never should have talked about how well he worked with segregationists back when they made up a powerful bloc of the Democrats’ Senate majority.
“Was I wrong a few weeks ago to give the impression that somehow I was praising those men I successfully opposed time and time again? Yes, I was,” Biden said. “I regret it and am sorry for any pain that misperception may have caused. But should that misstep define a 50-year record of fighting for civil rights and racial justice in this country? I don’t think so — and I hope you don’t either.”
The apology was the crucial moment of Biden's trip; the next day, he told reporters that he wanted to make it to “an audience that in fact would be the most likely to have been offended by anything that was said.” The former vice president, however, had been in South Carolina just days after delivering the lines (at a fundraiser that was closed to cameras but open to pooled media) that kicked off the controversy. Before the Miami debate, he had rejected calls to apologize; after the debate, he embraced them.
Biden's defensiveness about his long record loomed as a potential problem before the debate, and it loomed larger once the debate was over. “If you look at the issues I’ve been attacked on, nearly every one of them is for something well before 2008,” he said in prepared remarks for Sumter. “It’s as if my opponents want you to believe I served from 1972 until 2008 — and then took the next eight years off. They don’t want to talk much about my time as vice president.”
The Sumter speech came as Biden's polling lead had slipped, but not vanished, in early states. Other campaigns saw in it some hints at how Biden could be attacked. While Biden was running as Obama's heir and ally, the former president was staying neutral; former first lady Michelle Obama turned down a chance to talk about Biden at Saturday night's session of the Essence Festival, an event focused on African American women.
While Biden, in 2008, signaled to skeptical white voters that Obama could be trusted, in 2019 he was struggling to present his own identity without relying on Obama. None of his rivals had worked as closely with Obama, but most of them — Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, Booker — had stumped or worked with Obama and were not attacking his legacy when they criticized Biden. At the Miami debate, only Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado criticized Biden for his role in negotiating a 2012 tax deal that made Democrats unhappy; expect more Democrats to seek ways to separate the vice president from the president who most of the party's voters sorely miss.
Joe Biden. He finished his South Carolina trip with more speeches and a roundtable with black leaders; before that, he told the National Education Association that, like Elizabeth Warren, he would appoint a public school teacher as secretary of education.
Elizabeth Warren. She told Essence Festival attendees (and readers of Essence magazine) that she would use executive orders to shrink the pay gap between black women and other workers and to ban forced arbitration clauses in contracts.
Kamala Harris. She used the Essence Festival to expand on ideas that she'd advanced at recent campaign events: expanding the Justice Department's role in vetting (and stalling) state antiabortion law and forcing businesses to publish their employee pay, making it harder for any racial pay gap to stay in place.
Cory Booker. He told the Essence Festival audience that “if black women are going to be the highest voters in this country, then the agenda of African American women has to be at the center of the Democratic Party agenda,” including more work to combat maternal and infant mortality and the pay gap.
Amy Klobuchar. Ahead of the NEA meeting in Houston, she pitched new “Progress Partnerships” that would encourage states to expand after-school programs, offer more help to poor students and rethink their funding mechanisms.
Pete Buttigieg. He told the Essence Festival that his presidency would focus on expanding minority-owned businesses.
Eric Swalwell. He scrapped a planned Fourth of July campaign swing in New Hampshire for personal family reasons that went unexplained.
Steve Bullock. He spent the week of the Fourth in eastern Iowa at small party events.
Julián Castro. He's in western Iowa on Sunday night and Monday morning, returning one week later to the other side of the state.
John Delaney. On CBS's “Face the Nation,” he warned once again that Democrats were adopting full-bore Medicare-for-all, phasing out almost all private insurance, without thinking through the political consequences.
Seth Moulton. He appeared on ABC's “This Week” with a fresh (yet familiar) warning for Democrats: “You saw on the debate stage the Democratic Party just careening to the left and promising a bunch of free things without any real strategy for getting these things done for the American people.”
Politico reporter Tim Alberta’s book “American Carnage,” about the Trump-era GOP, arrives next week. The Guardian and reporter Yashar Ali obtained early copies, and shared the details of a story that said a lot about the president’s thinking.
According to Trump, he saw the primary victory of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) coming when few politicos dreamed of it. Per an interview with Alberta, he was “watching television in the White House” in the summer of 2018 when “he caught a glimpse of the Democratic insurgent on a cable news program.” He became “enamored” with the candidate “after soaking in her performance” and told his campaign team to call then-Rep. Joe Crowley, the incumbent she was challenging. In the Guardian's excerpt, Trump recalled a woman “ranting and raving like a lunatic on a street corner” and told advisers to turn the channel back to her.
“Later, when she won,” Ali writes, summarizing Alberta, “he took the opportunity to remind everyone that they had similarly underestimated him.”
Why is it revealing? Because it couldn't have happened. Ocasio-Cortez never appeared on the big cable networks — Fox, CNN, MSNBC — until she won her primary. “We had an MSNBC hit planned,” said her spokesman, Corbin Trent, “but it got bumped.” Staffers at Media Matters, who searched for transcripts of the months before Ocasio-Cortez’s June 28, 2018, win, confirmed that she never appeared on the networks. Although Ocasio-Cortez's campaign video went viral, it did not get cable coverage like viral ads for more center-left Democrats had.
Other details of the story are nearly as confusing. While Ali describes Trump as a longtime observer of Crowley, the former congressman's team said that Crowley barely interacted with Trump.
“Joe had only met Trump once in his life, at a Charlie Rangel fundraiser, and they spoke for less than a minute,” said Crowley's former spokeswoman, Lauren French. “They’ve never met besides that.”
Trump's story, intended to show how perceptive he was, sounds a lot like his often-told anecdote of predicting that the United Kingdom's “Leave” campaign would win, kicking off the tortured “Brexit” process. While Trump has repeatedly talked about holding a news conference at one of his Scottish golf courses to predict the victory, he did not comment on the vote until it happened; the Scottish news conference was held the next day.
. . . nine days until the cutoff for the next Democratic presidential debates
. . . 23 days until the next Democratic presidential debates
. . . 211 days until the Iowa caucuses