At the Hoover Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, Iowans caucused Monday night in English. And French. And Spanish. And Nepali. And Swahili. And Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, and Lingala.
When the votes from the “satellite caucus” that was packed with newcomers to the process were counted, however, they spoke in one language. As the local paper announced, “Nearly all at multilingual Iowa caucus site in Cedar Rapids pick Bernie Sanders.”
The race was a bit closer at a traditional caucus 75 miles away in the Loras College Alumni Center in Dubuque, where teenagers helped put Sanders over the top. Different locations. Different types of caucuses. But one thing was clear across Iowa: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders benefited tremendously from an effort to mobilize new and diverse groups of voters in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
That fact was obscured by the fiasco that occurred Monday night when the Iowa Democratic Party’s tabulation of results melted down because of a poorly test app, an overwhelmed hotline, and a general failure to prepare for the night when the whole world was waiting to see whom Iowans would boost in the Democratic presidential race. After the party finally started releasing results Tuesday, there were lots of headlines announcing that former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg—who had declared on caucus night that “by all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious”—was leading.
By Thursday, however, Sanders’s numbers had ticked up dramatically with the addition of votes from satellite caucuses and some of the urban centers where his campaign had poured energy into expanding the electorate to include historically underrepresented communities. Thursday concluded with a Des Moines Register headline that announced: “With 100% of caucus results in, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders are in a near tie in state delegates.” The Associated Press reported, “Amid irregularities, AP unable to declare winner in Iowa.” And NBC explained that the caucus results were “rife with potential errors and inconsistencies that could affect the outcome, according to a review by the NBC News Decision Desk.” Ominously, the network added: “The apparent mistakes—spotted in at least dozens of the state’s 1,711 precincts—call into question the accuracy of the outcome of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus, which was held on Monday night. In some individual precincts, it may be possible to fix the errors; in other precincts, it will probably be impossible to determine how voters truly made their choices.”
But we actually do know a lot about how voters made their choices. One arcane measure of Iowa’s success pointed to a close finish, but two clearer measures favored Sanders. The close measure was in the race for so-called “state delegate equivalents,” which had Buttigieg at 564, or 26.2 percent, and Sanders at 562, or 26.1 percent. Trailing were Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren at 387, or 18 percent, and former vice president Joe Biden at 341, or 15.8 percent.
Measures of popular voting provided clarity, however. In the first round of caucus voting (the rough equivalent of a primary), Sanders was at 43,671, while Buttigieg was at 37,557. In this measure, Sanders was more than 6,000 votes ahead of Buttigieg, more than 11,000 votes ahead of Warren, and more 17,000 votes ahead of Biden. Sanders was also comfortably ahead in the count of second-round votes (where backers of candidates who fell short of the threshold for viability in the first round can align with most popular contenders).
“I got 6,000 more votes,” Sanders said at the news conference Thursday in New Hampshire, where the first Democratic primary will be held Tuesday. “Where I come from, when you get 6,000 more votes, that’s generally considered a win.” The senator was not alone in declaring the win. “Our @SunriseIowa team persuaded 7,000 Iowan youth to pledge to caucus for a (Green New Deal) candidate,” declared the Sunrise Movement, the organization of young climate crisis activists that has endorsed Sanders. “We think it’s safe to say our generation helped push Bernie to victory.”
Definitions of victory remain up for grabs, as the Sanders and Buttigieg camps highlight their best measures. Indeed, circumstances in Iowa remain so muddled that Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez has made an appropriate call for a recanvass of the results. A final sorting out of the mess will take time.
For the moment, however, it is worth noting that Sanders ran so well in Iowa—even Buttigieg says the senator “clearly had a great night, too”—because of a strategy that focused resources and grassroots energy on turning out immigrants and members of diverse faith communities that were expected to attend satellite caucuses. That strategy also focused on mobilizing the young people who have formed a solid core of Sanders supporters since his 2016 presidential bid. The campaign “invested in communities who have been left out of the political process,” explained Sanders campaign state director Misty Rebik, who told supporters, “We set out to transform politics in Iowa and across the country. You should be proud because we have done that.”
Campaigns always put the best spin on their efforts. But, in this case, the numbers back Rebik up. An entry poll conducted Monday evening found that of the 37 percent of caucus-goers who identified themselves as first-time participants in the process, Sanders was the favorite—winning roughly a third of first-timers. Overall turnout was up roughly 5,000 from 2016. But the portion of voters under age 30 spiked—from 18 percent of the caucus turnout in 2016 to 24 percent this year—and 48 percent of those surveyed said they backed Sanders. The next closest contender for the votes of younger caucus-goers, Buttigieg, was at 19 percent. Among the people of color who made up 9 percent of the electorate surveyed for the entry poll, 43 percent backed Sanders, while Buttigieg was at 15 percent and other candidates trailed behind.
“The enthusiasm for Sanders, especially at the multilingual, multiracial satellite caucuses, shows great promise for the future of his campaign,” said Natalia Salgado, the political director at the Center for Popular Democracy Action. “Sanders’s deep investment in grassroots organizing and partnership with movement organizations delivered for him in Iowa.”
Aimee Allison, the founder and president of She the People, the national network that advocates for increased attention to mobilizing and empowering women of color, noted the importance of organizing to bring new voters into the process. “In #iowa, even in this state of mostly white voters, victory for @BernieSanders hinges on organizing with immigrant and Latinx voters. Most women,” she tweeted. “We’ve been saying this for a year now—you can’t win without us. This model will be THE path to victory.”
The most striking numbers for Sanders came from the 87 satellite caucuses—mostly in Iowa, but also for Iowans living outside the state. The Des Moines Register reported that the Iowa satellites “included 14 in workplace-related locations, 24 on college campuses, 29 designed to accommodate accessibility needs, 11 for people needing language or cultural accommodations and nine for Iowans who spend the winters in other states.” It’s notable that Warren ran well in a number of the satellites for Iowans living outside the state, topping caucus votes in Paris and Washington, DC, among other locations.
While the Buttigieg campaign was reportedly griping about how state delegate equivalents from the satellite caucuses were allocated, the Sanders camp was celebrating a victory for a mobilization strategy that could have meaning far beyond Iowa.
The Sanders campaign worked hard to get first-time voters to satellites. In Des Moines, where Muslim voters caucused at mosques, US Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat who is one of two Muslim women in Congress and who has emerged as an important Sanders surrogate, urged members of the Islamic community to recognize that “it’s not about somebody else. This election cycle is about us. This election cycle is about your daughters who are in schools who are dealing with xenophobia, with racism, with Islamophobia.”
On Monday night, at the Muslim Community Organization caucus site in Des Moines, 120 votes were cast for various Democratic contenders. Sanders took 115 in the initial round, 119 in the second round, and all the state delegate equivalents.
At the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 230 union hall in Ottumwa, where a satellite caucus was held for second-shift workers at a nearby pork processing plant, 14 of 15 votes were cast for Sanders and he won all the delegate equivalents. Sanders supporters canvassed between midnight and 2 am at the plant where many of the workers are immigrants from Latin America and Africa. The majority of those who attended in Ottumwa were first-time caucus participants, including a group of Ethiopian immigrants holding Sanders signs.
Sanders also posted remarkable figures in traditional caucuses where young people were well-represented. I attended the caucus at Loras College, which drew a crowd of almost 250 students and residents of surrounding neighborhoods. Sanders dominated the first and second alignments and won the largest number of delegate equivalents. In the Sanders section, his backers announced their ages: 18, 19, 19, 20, 18, 18, and so on. “I like that he criticizes the corporations,” said Danielle Montocchio, an 18-year-old Loras student. Next to her, 20-year-old student Brock Parker said, “Bernie stands up to the bullies in politics, and to the corporate bullies. Now we’re standing up for him.”
The Sunrise Movement’s Stephen O’Hanlon thinks they will keep standing up for him. “This is a sign of what’s to come,” says O’Hanlon. “If this many young people participated in the notoriously time-intensive Iowa caucuses, we can expect even higher youth turnout in New Hampshire and on Super Tuesday. Which is another way of saying Joe Biden should be worried.”