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‘They should be scared.’ As Bernie Sanders rises in Iowa, his 2020 supporters slam establishment warnings he could lose to Donald Trump.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, is welcomed to the stage by Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash at a climate rally with the Sunrise Movement at the Graduate Hotel on Jan. 12, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, is welcomed to the stage by Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash at a climate rally with the Sunrise Movement at the Graduate Hotel on Jan. 12, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa.(Andrew Harnik / AP)

For the last five years, Diane and Joel Franken have been fervent students of the politics of Bernie Sanders and the mechanics of his presidential campaigns.

The couple, dressed in matching blue “Bernie” T-shirts for a recent event in Davenport, have seen the Vermont senator speak at 10 rallies, watched him play softball at the Field of Dreams in Iowa, frequently volunteered for the campaign and even housed Sanders campaign staffers in their home for the last two presidential cycles.

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They’ve noticed some differences in 2020 compared with the last go-round: The staff is more diverse and experienced, the campaign is doing a better job of reaching out to black and Latino voters, and the voter contact program is more sophisticated than it was four years ago. Plus, Iowans are far more familiar with Sanders, who now has the benefit of being a household name, with his push for a political revolution well-known to the masses.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign stop at St. Ambrose University on Jan. 11, 2020, in Davenport, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign stop at St. Ambrose University on Jan. 11, 2020, in Davenport, Iowa. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

“I have no doubt he’s going to win Iowa this time. His ground team this year is unbelievable,” Joel Franken, a 73-year-old arts educator, said before a recent Sanders rally at St. Ambrose University as his wife nodded in agreement. “They’re just so solid organizationalwise, they did well in the caucus system last time — which is not easy — and I think they really have it knocked this year.”

A key Iowa poll adds to Franken’s optimism, placing Sanders atop the Democratic field in the state for the first time in either of his runs for president. It’s far from a runaway, however, as former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg all remain within a few points of one another in the most recent Iowa surveys.

In poll after poll, however, one advantage Sanders clearly has demonstrated is having the most enthusiastic and committed supporters in the state of any candidate — important factors since caucusing involves heading out on a likely cold February night the day after the Super Bowl and committing a couple of hours to back a candidate.

Beyond the poll numbers, Sanders has a built-in benefit as the only contender competing in Iowa for a second-straight election, with many of his campaign organizers and volunteers returning. He also holds a growing financial advantage over his fellow front-runners in Iowa, $96 million last year from more than 1 million donors and more than 4 million individual grassroots contributions, a record for a presidential campaign.

All of it comes a few months after Sanders’ candidacy appeared to be in peril, with the 78-year-old face of the party’s progressive left dropping in the polls and the future of his campaign uncertain after suffering a heart attack and spending several days in a Las Vegas hospital.

His resurgence to the top of the field with less than three weeks to go before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Feb. 3 caucuses has led to new attacks this week from President Donald Trump and Republicans, a rare burst of feuding with fellow progressive Warren and, most of all, the sounding of the alarm from establishment Democrats worried a Sanders nomination could spell defeat in November.

Among the most visible Democrats offering that warning is Rahm Emanuel. In his post-mayoral role as a network TV pundit, Emanuel has contended a Sanders nomination would jeopardize Democrats’ control of the U.S. House, create a bleak scenario around the party’s hopes to flip the U.S. Senate and make it much harder to defeat Trump in critical swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that decided the last election.

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“The battle is in the battleground states. The battle is not in the base states. The question is what is the best way to win those battleground states, not the best way to run up the vote in California or New York that are not in doubt at all,” said Emanuel, who served as chief of staff to former President Barack Obama, and senior White House adviser and chief campaign fundraiser for former President Bill Clinton.

“If you look at how Bill Clinton won and how Barack Obama won, they won swing states with swing voters,” Emanuel said in an interview. “It’s that simple.”

Sanders and his supporters, however, are banking on breaking that political mold — in Iowa and across the country.

Stickers and buttons that read "Bernie beats Trump" at a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in Newport, New Hampshire, on Dec. 29, 2019.
Stickers and buttons that read "Bernie beats Trump" at a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in Newport, New Hampshire, on Dec. 29, 2019. (Elizabeth Frantz/The New York Times)

His campaign not only has pushed back on questions of his electability with “Bernie beats Trump” bumper stickers and buttons at recent rallies, but the Vermont senator also has argued that the path to victory doesn’t reside with independent or more moderate swing voters. The way to win, he contends, is to drive new voters to the polls in record numbers by embracing a bold agenda that includes backing “Medicare For All,” the Green New Deal, canceling student loan debt, and offering free tuition at public colleges and universities.

“Look, we’re in the last few weeks of a campaign, and people are going to say a lot of things, but what I believe, very honestly, is the way we beat Trump, the way we transform this country, is by getting more people ... involved in the political process,” Sanders said in response to establishment Democrats raising concerns about him winning the nomination.

“We need a huge voter turnout. We need to appeal to young people and disenfranchised working-class people who are giving up on the political process,” Sanders continued, as he worked the rope line at a rally Sunday in Iowa City. “That’s the way we’re going to beat Trump.”

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An Iowa rise

Since 1943, the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll has been viewed as a key indicator of political strength in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses.

In the latest Iowa Poll released Friday, conducted by Selzer & Co. and co-sponsored by CNN, Sanders led with 20%, followed by Warren with 17%, Buttigieg with 16%, Biden with 15% and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar with 6%. The poll’s margin of error is 3.7 percentage points. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polls in Iowa also has Sanders at the top of the field, in a virtual tie with Biden as both register at 20%, followed by Buttigieg at nearly 19%, Warren at 16%.

In the last three months of 2019, Sanders raised $34.5 million — the largest haul by any Democrat in any quarter this cycle. Sanders raised more than $96 million in 2019, with December marking his strongest month yet, with some 900,000 donations totaling more than $18 million.

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The financial cushion has allowed Sanders to build a robust ground operation in Iowa, with 23 offices across the state and more than 250 paid staffers, which the campaign contends is the largest of any candidate. In January alone, the campaign expects to knock on more than 500,000 doors.

Not only is the campaign apparatus wide-reaching, but it’s not as green as it was four years ago.

“In 2016, there was a lot of energy behind Bernie because it was a brand new thing. Everyone was super excited, but a lot of us were very inexperienced," said Justin Comer, a 29-year-old musician who has volunteered for Sanders in both presidential races and attended more than 20 of the candidate’s rallies. “This time around, the campaign is way better organized. Everybody knows what’s going to happen at the caucus. We all know how it works. It’s still very energetic, but there are a lot more experienced people on board, and we know how to win politics this time.”

In 2016, Comer volunteered for Sanders in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin, and this year he’s been canvassing for the campaign in Iowa City. For 2020, Comer said he’s seen a lot of the same volunteers returning, but much wiser.

“We know how to speak to people who feel like they haven’t been included in the political process, people who feel disenfranchised one way or another,” Comer said at a Sanders climate change rally at an Iowa City hotel. “A lot of us were those people last time.”

The 2020 race remains very fluid, with 40% saying they have chosen their candidate, but another 45% saying they could be persuaded to change their mind and 13% still undecided. Of all the candidates in the most recent poll, Sanders by far had the highest percentage of those who say they have their mind made up — 59%. The next closest was Warren with 48%.

“I looked at Elizabeth Warren. She’s similar, but I like Bernie. I want the original,” said John Elson, 66, a librarian from Iowa City. “I like the fact that young people are coming out in big numbers for him, and I think that’s going to bring the energy for his campaign to work well and for him to win.”

A woman in the audience wears a shirt depicting Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., when he was arrested during a Civil Rights protest for school desegregation as she cheers with others for Sanders at a campaign stop at St. Ambrose University, Jan. 11, 2020, in Davenport, Iowa.
A woman in the audience wears a shirt depicting Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., when he was arrested during a Civil Rights protest for school desegregation as she cheers with others for Sanders at a campaign stop at St. Ambrose University, Jan. 11, 2020, in Davenport, Iowa.(Andrew Harnik / AP)

Sanders has continued to benefit from an enthusiasm gap in the race, polls in Iowa and across the country have found. The most recent Iowa Poll found 49% of Sanders supporters said they were “extremely enthusiastic” to caucus for him, 17 points higher than the next closest candidate, Warren.

Elson and many other Sanders supporters on the campaign trail pointed to the senator’s consistency over four decades as their reason for voting for him. His support for civil rights, focus on income inequality and opposition to wars are areas frequently recited by voters at his rallies.

“It’s his integrity. He’s had the same beliefs all his life,” said Diane Franken, 74, a school grant writer who regularly volunteers for the campaign. “He got arrested during the civil rights movement. It’s not just what he says, it’s what he does. He backs up his beliefs with his actions."

Sanders backers also point to how issues he emphasized four years ago — taxing the wealthy, Medicare For All and a major initiative to fight climate change — have become much more mainstream in the party in 2020.

“I think that the mainstream has come to Bernie,” said Scott Tunnicliff, a 65-year-old economic developer who lives in the eastern Iowa city of Bettendorf and attended Sanders’ Davenport rally. “People talk about, ‘He’s too far left.’ Well, the center has shifted, and that’s what he’s going to be benefiting from, and we’ll be benefiting from, too."

Attacks and feuds escalate

With Sanders’ Iowa rise has come renewed attention from Republicans and Trump.

The president’s campaign has released statements in recent days slamming Sanders as a “wealthy, fossil-fuel guzzling millionaire” and said he “can’t be trusted to defend American lives.” Trump also recently tweeted, "Wow! Crazy Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls, looking very good against his opponents in the Do Nothing Party. So what does this all mean? Stay tuned!”

“It means you’re going to lose,” Sanders tweeted back.

“It seems to me that Donald Trump is getting a little bit nervous, because in the last few days he and his Republican lieutenants are focusing their anger on our campaign," a hoarse Sanders told a packed room of 450 people in Davenport. “They know what we know, that we are the strongest campaign to defeat Donald Trump.”

As Sanders’ fundraising and poll numbers have increased in recent days, so have the tensions with Warren, his fellow progressive and friend.

When a Politico report this week noted Sanders campaign workers had written talking points encouraging volunteers to dismiss Warren to voters as a candidate of the elite, Warren responded by accusing Sanders (who said he didn’t know about the script) of trying to “trash” her. In turn, a CNN report cited Warren sources noting Sanders had told her in a 2019 meeting that a woman couldn’t win the election.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talk on Jan. 14, 2020, after a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talk on Jan. 14, 2020, after a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

That spat spilled over into Tuesday night’s debate in Des Moines, the final one before the caucuses, in which Sanders insisted he did not say a woman couldn’t win and Warren used the moment to point out the men on the stage had lost 10 elections while she and Klobuchar had lost zero. Afterward, Sanders attempted to shake Warren’s hand, but the Massachusetts senator refused as she told Sanders, “I think you called me a liar on national TV,” to which Sanders replied, “You called me a liar,” according to audio revealed by CNN.

Throughout the race, however, Sanders’ messaging has focused most on his fight for a “political revolution," and his latest ad in the state seeks to make the point by invoking one of the party’s most popular presidents, John F. Kennedy.

The ad opens with Kennedy’s 1962 moon speech, with the former president declaring, “We choose to go to the moon this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

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The ad flashes images of Kennedy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon Johnson and a man on the moon as Sanders narrates, “President Kennedy knew that settling for half measures wasn’t good enough. So, when candidates say we can’t guarantee health care for all, make college affordable for all, combat climate change or create a world in peace, remember, America is best when we strive to do big things — even when it’s hard.”

While Sanders has been invoking some of the nation’s most popular Democratic presidents, some in the party’s establishment are just as likely to compare the Vermont senator to Michael Dukakis or Walter Mondale — presidential candidates from the party’s liberal wing who went on to landslide losses.

Sen. Bernie Sanders with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., during a town hall-style campaign event at Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, on Jan. 11, 2020.
Sen. Bernie Sanders with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., during a town hall-style campaign event at Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, on Jan. 11, 2020. (JORDAN GALE / NYT)

When the recent Iowa poll showed Sanders leading the field, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina proclaimed that Trump would want most to run against the self-described democratic socialist to exploit his far left political posture. California Rep. Ami Bera, who has endorsed Biden and is helping lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s efforts to hold onto House members in swing districts, warned that if Sanders won the nomination, those candidates would “have to run away from the nominee.”

And then there’s Emanuel, who led the DCCC’s historic takeover of the House by recruiting so-called Blue Dog Democrats, moderates who won swing districts.

“There’s a reason Bernie doesn’t have any endorsements in any way in those swing states, from the group of congressional candidates, state rep candidates, gubernatorial candidates, state auditors in those areas,” Emanuel said. “Bernie doesn’t think he needs swing voters. He thinks he can get enough votes out of Democratic constituencies to overpower the system, and I don’t believe that’s true and I don’t see that happening.”

Many of Sanders’ supporters remain bitter and motivated by the party establishment’s treatment of Sanders, often pointing to rules created by the Democratic National Committee that they believe unfairly tilted the 2016 nomination in Hillary Clinton’s favor.

“The DNC just threw him under the bus and fixed it so Hillary would win,” said Clif Johnson, 38, who owns a gym in Iowa City and attended the recent Sanders rally there. “I still don’t feel like he’s getting a fair shake, but now he has so much more support and people know more about him that it doesn’t matter as much. He’s able to stand on his feet a little stronger now and his slogan, ‘Not me, us,’ is exactly what the race is about: us.”

As for the warnings from Emanuel and other members of the establishment, many Sanders supporters on the trail in Iowa were almost giddy to see it.

“I think it is a good sign, because Bernie is doing well and they know it. They are the ones who really have a vested interest in the status quo,” said Tunnicliff, the Bettendorf economic development director. “These people are scared now, and they should be scared. Wall Street should be scared. Insurance companies should be scared. Old line political hacks should be scared. This is Bernie’s time."

Twitter @BillRuthhart

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