Pete Ramand

Pete Ramand

Letter from abroad: Bernie won Iowa and beyond

Reading Time: 6 minutes

A surge behind the campaign of left-winger Bernie Sanders, and some strange goings-on in Iowa, has captured global attention. Conter spoke to Pete Ramand, a volunteer organizer with the Sanders campaign who was campaigning in the key Iowa cities of Cedar Rapids and Dubuque, about what happened, and what comes next for the historic movement.

1. What the hell is going on in Iowa? Did Bernie win? Is this as dodgy as it looks?

It’s now clear that Bernie has won the Iowa caucus. With 98% of precincts reporting, he is more than 6000 votes ahead in the popular vote, and is tying with Buttigieg in the number of delegates that will go the Democratic convention. The system in Iowa over-represents rural caucuses, which is why Buttigieg will get the same number of delegates.

The final 2% of uncounted votes are all coming from Satellite caucuses. And Sanders is expected to win them by a landslide. These are caucuses on campuses, at Mosques, special events for Spanish speakers and so on. They are, for the most part, first time events that have been organized by Bernie supporters.

In the first ever Muslim Community Organization caucus, for example, Sanders took all 9 delegates. The scenes from the event were amazing. In caucuses, participants vote publicly by standing – or sitting in the case of the mosque – in a designated area for the supporters of each candidate. When the caucus chair asked Sanders’ supporters to sit in an area to the left of the mihrab – a hollow section in the wall that points towards Mecca – almost everyone went there.

The initial vote was: 115 for Sanders, two for Andrew Yang, two for Elizabeth Warren and one for Pete Buttigieg.

That’s one example, but it is representative of a broader trend: in the Satellites that have reported so far, Sanders had 1586 first round supporters. Pete is in second place on 133. So expect the last three percent coming in to increase Bernie’s lead.

Bernie is also winning across a range of demographics that many of his Democratic establishment opponents say he struggles with. For example he won 47% of non-white women compared to just 17% for Buttigieg, 12% Warren and 11% for Biden.

As for the process, the events of the last few days have been beyond belief. The level of anger being directed towards the Democratic Party is insane.

It’s hard to tell where incompetence ends and corruption begins. And at this point, I’m not even sure what the difference is. Just think about the timeline: in April 2019 Pete Buttigieg, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer met to discuss how to stop Bernie winning the nomination. In July, Buttigieg paid $21,000 to Shadow Inc, the company commissioned to make the app that failed so spectacularly in Iowa. The parent company of Shadow is called Acronym, a Democratic political strategy group and Super Pac that employs a Buttigieg staffer.

The day after the Iowa caucuses, the local Democratic Party released only 71% of the results. The areas with the most missing votes were in Des Moines, the urban capital city, and Cedar Rapids, which has a huge student population. Unsurprisingly, Bernie was expected to win in both.

Now, you might think “well, it’ll take longer to count the votes in bigger cities”. But the precinct captains who run the vote in Des Moines immediately stated that they had completed the count 24 hours previously, and had reported everything to the state party at that time. They went public with this stating they had been repeatedly calling the state Democratic Party, and were given no reason why the votes hadn’t been reported with the initial 71%. Nor any information regarding when they’d be released.

Then, when these additional results were released a day later (taking the vote count to 85% reporting), they reported that Pete Buttigieg was now winning the popular vote. So all the main news channels started reporting that Pete had won. Within an hour, after scrutiny, the Iowa Democats were forced to retract this, saying they had made a “minor error”: Pete wasn’t leading; actually Bernie had extended his lead in the popular vote.

Make of this what you will. Usually, I never underestimate the incompetence of local bureaucrats and the Democratic Party. But this is all a little on the nose.

2. Can the failures in the vote count hurt Sanders’ campaign?

This is annoying, but it won’t hurt him too much.

There’s no doubt that this wasn’t good. It robbed Bernie of additional momentum that he would have gained going into the New Hampshire primary, he lost prime time air time, and the main story is now the caucus disaster, rather than Bernie scoring this huge upset.

The real winner out of this is Joe Biden. He performed atrociously, and he’s not getting the public flaying that he and his campaign deserve.

3. What are the strengths of Sanders’ campaign, what sorts of organising is happening on the ground?

This is like no campaign I’ve ever been a part of. The size and level of sophistication is incredible. I was in Cedar Rapids and Dubuque over the weekend. The ground game was humming, and the app being used to turn out the vote is phenomenal. On every street I knew which houses were Bernie supporters. I knew their names, ages, the issues that motivated them, other candidates they had considered and the content of previous conversations activists had had with them. I knew where they had to go to caucus, and if they couldn’t get there, I could quickly get someone at the office to organize a ride for them.

On top of the ground game, they had an amazing phone banking system so people out of state could help. You can do this over your computer, from home, in any spare half hour that you have in the day. At the start of the campaign, Bernie’s team set what they thought was a highly ambitious target of making 5 million calls to Iowa voters. By the time of the caucus they’d made more than 10 million. Remember, only 3.1 million people live in Iowa.

As well as these big sophisticated operations, there was also incredibly detailed face to face organizing going on. I know of Trade Union organizers who set up in the state and secretly organized outside workplaces for weeks, setting up factory caucus sites without the other campaigns knowing about it. These often only had a handful of people at them, but they were solidly for Sanders.

The very first caucus that took place in Iowa sums this up. Most caucuses take place in the evening, but this happened at noon, at a union hall in Ottumwa. Out of fifteen people present, fourteen of them were there to caucus for Bernie Sanders. Almost all of them were immigrants, primarily from Ethiopia but also from Honduras and Macedonia. They all worked at JBS Pork, the largest employer in the county.

How did this happen? The Sanders campaign assigned a bunch of people to post up at the gates of the JBS meat processing plant. They canvassed outside the factory from 10pm to 3 am. The campaign organizers spoke to workers in multiple languages about their lives, their work, and Sanders’ platform and campaign. And got them to organize other workers themselves.

That’s just one example of the kind of work that’s been happening for months here.

4. What comes next? What are the crucial next stages in the race?

The New Hampshire primary is less than a week away. And this is one Bernie has to win. The next few primaries after this are going to be difficult for Sanders: primary voters in Nevada and Carolina tend, on average, to be a little more conservative. This is fine: Bernie is going to lose some states. And he was never expected to win these.

The key will be Super Tuesday at the start of March – that is going to decide a lot. California and Texas are the two most delegate rich states, and they both vote that day. Sanders is currently ahead in California, and believe it or not he is tied for first place in Texas. The results on Super Tuesday will be mixed, and a lot of candidates will drop out after it. So we will have a much better idea about who is going to be the Democratic Party nominee by March 4th.

In New Hampshire, the Monmouth poll out today had Sanders leading with 24%. Buttigieg is in second with 20%; Biden has 17%; Warren 13%; and Klobuchar 9%. So things are looking good. And Bernie has by far the best ground operation in the state. I think he will win with more than 24% of the vote.

The other crucial factor is who stays in the race. There are several centrist candidates. If one drops out, it will boost the vote of the others. So if Klobuchar leaves the race, her votes will mostly go to Biden and Buttigieg. So frankly, we actually want them all to stay in the race as long as possible.

While the way Bloomberg has entered the race is a fiasco, it might actually split the centrist vote further. The DNC clearly like him, so they’ve completely changed the debate rules just so he can participate. Julian Castro and Corey Booker were forced out of previous debates, and therefore the race, because they didn’t hit the DNCs required number of donors. Bloomberg doesn’t have a single donor. But he has $55 billion. So the DNC want him on the stage.

As I say though, this might be good for Bernie: it splits the vote, and plays into Bernie’s consistent narrative that the super rich can buy democracy. Bernie hasn’t been too confrontational with other candidates during debates up until now. I think that might change when he’s up there with Bloomberg. It will be one to watch.
5. Would it be fair to say Trump is having a pretty good time right now, with the Iowa mess and his state of the union speech?

Trump is absolutely loving this.

Picture: Gage Skidmore

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