Clive, Iowa—Justin Vernon, the Grammy Award–winning singer and songwriter behind the enormously popular indie group Bon Iver, paused toward the end of his Friday night set in this Des Moines suburb to talk politics.
“There’s only a few opportunities come around in a lifetime to change the course of history towards human beings,” he said. Vernon paused, and then he delivered the applause line, “Who knew Iowa would have that chance? That’s all I’m saying.”
Vernon did not even have to mention the candidate he had come to support. The crowd of 2,500 Bernie Sanders supporters erupted in applause at the event, which concluded less than 72 hours before the starting time for the Iowa caucuses.
Then, answering the enthusiasm of the young voters whose support will be essential for Sanders in the caucuses where many polls suggest he is ahead, Vernon launched into a poignant rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”
In Iowa, @boniver closes the show for @BernieSanders with a strikingly poignant version of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’. The young, energetic crowd of more than 2500 embraced this message in particular as they prepared for Monday’s caucuses.pic.twitter.com/W5dXtC05fE
—John Nichols (@NicholsUprising) February 1, 2020
Sanders was stuck in Washington Friday night, as the impeachment trial of the president he hopes to replace wound down. The senator, who would not make it back onto the Iowa campaign trail until Saturday, called in and delivered well-received remarks. But the crowd in Clive did not seem to mind his absence. Bands and speakers like filmmaker Michael Moore, Jane Sanders, and Representatives Pramila Jayapal, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib were more than enough to keep the overwhelmingly young audience engaged until Vernon started playing.
“You get education and entertainment. It’s a hard-to-beat night,” said Holly Olson, a 23-year-old college student from Madrid, Iowa. “It gets everyone excited to caucus on Monday.”
For Sanders aides, the news that their candidate would be in Washington for most of the final week before the caucuses could have been a blow to a grassroots campaign that has leaned heavily on the candidate’s appearances to keep interest and energy high across Iowa.
At the critical final stage, the campaign needed star power to attract more newcomers to events where they are taught how to caucus and to maintain volunteer enthusiasm at the almost two dozen field offices where they are working long shifts as the caucuses approach. So Pete D’Alessandro, a longtime Iowa political operative and Sanders campaign adviser, recalls, “We said, ‘We want surrogates, the members of Congress, the musicians. We can make this work.’”
And so they have. Across Iowa in the final week before the caucuses, the Sanders campaign has maintained a busy schedule of events that have drawn thousands of activists to rallies, town hall meetings, and concerts featuring Bon Iver, Portugal the Man, and Vampire Weekend. No corner of Iowa has been left behind.
The campaign has sent Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair Mark Pocan to the working-class town of Clinton and Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair Jayapal to Greenfield in rural Adair County. In Greenfield, a community of 1,982, Jayapal drew a crowd of more than 100.
“You really get the sense of this as a movement that is about more than one man,” said the representative from Seattle. “People are excited about Bernie, but it doesn’t stop with Bernie.” That was evident a few hours after Jayapal’s Greenfield event when she appeared with at a Sanders field office in Ankeny, Iowa, with popular Sanders surrogate Nina Turner.
“I want to thank you on behalf of Senator Sanders, who can’t be here because he is a juror in the trial of Donald Trump,” Turner told a crowd that packed the office and flowed out onto the sidewalk outside. “He’s fighting for us in Washington. We have to fight for him here in Iowa.”
Turner got to the point. The surrogates are not in Iowa to see and be seen; they are on the ground with a mission—and all the campaigns recognize this. With the caucuses close, the point of events is to draw people out of their homes and into the active work of the campaign. While the Sanders effort has been remarkable, all the campaigns use surrogates to get Iowans to sign up to caucus and to keep volunteers excited about making calls and knocking on doors when temperatures fall below freezing.
Former vice president Joe Biden has had a veteran Iowa campaigner, former secretary of state (and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee) John Kerry, appearing on his behalf. And the campaign of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has brought in a number of key backers, including Julián Castro, a former presidential contender who was working Iowa on his own behalf just a few weeks ago, and Representative Ayanna Pressley, the Massachusetts Democrat who has a following among activists and has proven to be a particularly popular surrogate for the senator.
Bringing in surrogates can have its risks, as smart, engaged political figures often speak their own minds rather than merely mouthing campaign talking points. For instance, it’s been noted in Iowa that both Castro and Pressley have argued for altering the schedule for the nominating process over concerns about a lack of diversity in the first caucus state of Iowa and the first primary state of New Hampshire.
While it is true that Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, and ran well in New Hampshire, Pressley told Politico this week, “You know what, people use Obama for everything: ‘This is supposed to be our evidence of a post racial America.’ Ultimately, whether we’re talking about racial justice or leadership parity or political representation, it’s not about these exceptional anomalies and one-offs. It’s about system change.” Because Iowans don’t much like the idea of system change, Warren was asked if she agreed. The candidate offered a politically savvy response: “I’m just a player in the game.”
Pressley’s colleague Tlaib took some criticism Friday night, after the subject of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s frequent criticism of Sanders came up during a discussion Tlaib was participating in with Omar and Jayapal. The moderator, former Des Moines School Board member Dionna Langford, tried to quiet boos that rose from the crowd at the mention of Clinton’s name. But Tlaib said, “Oh. no, I’ll boo. Boo.” The congresswoman added, “You all know I can’t be quiet. The haters will shut up on Monday when we win.”
The exchange drew an immediate response on Twitter and other online platforms, as Clinton fans accused Tlaib of undermining party unity, while Sanders fans argued she was only responding to Clinton’s criticisms. On Saturday, Tlaib explained, “I allowed my disappointment with Secretary Clinton’s latest comments about Senator Sanders and his supporters to get the best of me. You all, my sisters-in-service on stage, and our movement deserve better.”
For the most part, however, the focus has been on the work of the campaign, which delights Rose Asaf, the 22-year-old Sanders backer who runs the Ankeny office where 200 caucus volunteers have been working a critical stretch of northeast Polk County outside Des Moines. Asaf has 500 shifts of canvassers going out this weekend.
“We’re asking a lot of people,” she admitted, as dozens of volunteers and a few newcomers crowded around Turner and Jayapal to take selfies Friday afternoon. “What makes it work is that these volunteers see themselves as part of a movement. They’re excited about Bernie Sanders, but they’re also excited about the people who have worked with Bernie, people who have been leaders in progressive movements. So when Nina Turner and Pramila Jayapal come to Ankeny, that’s just what we need.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Representative Ayanna Pressley was present at a discussion with Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar on January 31. This post has been updated.