The Oldest Courting the Youngest: Bernie Sanders in Ames
“Let me start off by making you very nervous.”
This is how Senator Bernie Sanders began his first of three campus stops of his “Tailgate Tour.” At the Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center in Ames, IA, the home of Iowa State University, Sanders quickly focused his attention to the students in the facility, warning that young people do not “vote in the numbers they should be voting.” Those who do not participate can’t complain about their low-wage jobs or student loans – the only answer to the problems of the young people in the room was to get involved.
This was Sanders Country. Story County, the home of Iowa State University, was carried by Sanders in 2016 with a margin of almost 20% — Sanders had 59.5%, whereas Clinton had 40.5% (NYT). In Ames, 45% of the population are college students, and the median age is 23.1 years (WHOtv). Some previous caucus-goers shared that their precincts went 2:1 in favor of Sanders.
In a giant facility with a stage, bounce house, and “Bern Bag Toss,” the majority of the people in the room were under 30, and the next largest population was likely over 60. It’s no wonder that the loudest cheers were for healthcare and free college.
“We’re going to win because we’re speaking to the issues on the hearts and minds of working families in Iowa and across the country,” Sanders said. He discussed five major issues and proposed “radical and crazy ideas” to address them: wealth inequality, healthcare, cost of college, climate change, and gun safety.
The voters and volunteers that I talked to selected those five aforementioned issues as their own key reasons for committing to caucus. They were searching for someone who had the guts to focus on the issues facing everyday citizens and the determination to confront America’s problems head-on.
“We need someone who is meeting the people directly in small towns,” a recent graduate told me. “We need a candidate that’s honest and open.” Honesty, integrity, consistency: Ames voters are looking for a candidate who tells it like it is.
Bernie isn’t the candidate that’s going to hold your hand and tell you it’s all going to be okay. In fact, he’s going to tell you that we are all very much on our way to hell. His speech felt more appropriate for Halloween rather than the early days of September – the audience left with fear, instead of the hope that characterized previous caucus seasons. But in times where many Americans are afraid to watch the new or read Twitter in the morning, Sanders’s rhetoric may feel honest and sincere, even necessary.
But Sanders is going to have get better at the retail politics that is essential to success in Iowa. One retired professor proudly showed me his first selfie with the Senator. “He’s trying to be more accessible. He’s getting there,” his wife, a retired nurse, shared with me. Iowans take the ability to easily see presidential candidates – in one instance, in a friend’s living room – for granted.
In a caucus season that’s truly chaotic, one voter told me, “It’s great that common-sense people like Iowa are first.” We have the ability to view as many candidates as we like, and then choose who is best. And if Sanders wants to have a chance at winning over Iowa in such a diverse and vast field, he’s going to have to find new voters. That’s why he is targeting Iowa college students.
“Think big, not small. Have a vision of where our great country can go,” Sanders said to the young crowd. He then returns to his five major issues, repeating his radical and crazy ideas with a wistful “Maybe, just maybe.” His well-known anger fading, Sanders’s tone turns to caution and fear.
“You can’t sit this one out,” he ends. You have to “stand up and say this ain’t right.” And then maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a chance at change.