Bernie Sanders ‘Gaining Momentum’ and Drawing ‘Overflow Crowds’

The New York Times really, really wants a horse race for the Democratic nomination.


The New York Times really, really wants a horse race for the Democratic nomination.

NYT (“Challenging Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders Gains Momentum in Iowa“):

The first evidence that Mrs. Clinton could face a credible challenge in the Iowa presidential caucuses appeared late last week in the form of overflow crowds at Mr. Sanders’s first swing through that state since declaring his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. He drew 700 people to an event on Thursday night in Davenport, for instance — the largest rally in the state for any single candidate this campaign season, and far more than the 50 people who attended a rally there on Saturday with former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland.

The first-in-the-nation caucuses, on Feb. 1, loom as a major test for Mrs. Clinton: She came in third in Iowa during her presidential run in 2008, and anything less than a decisive victory this time would rattle her shell of inevitability and raise questions about her strengths as a standard-bearer for an increasingly liberal Democratic Party.

Mr. Sanders is considered the Senate’s most left-wing member, and he has been inspiring fervor among the Democratic base at recent rallies and town-hall-style meetings, including on Wednesday in the first presidential primary state, New Hampshire.

Mrs. Clinton is far ahead in the polls, fund-raising and name recognition, however, and she is expected to continue to have a much more organized and sophisticated campaign operation in Iowa and nationwide than Mr. Sanders has. Her mix of centrist and progressive Democratic views may yet prove more appealing to the broadest number of party voters as well, while some of Mr. Sanders’s policy prescriptions — including far higher taxes on the wealthy and deep military spending cuts — may eventually persuade Democrats that he is unelectable in a general election.

I’m pretty sure Democrats already think that. While I agree with Jon Stewart that Sanders is a perfectly reasonable politician rather than the kook that he’s made out to be—and especially that there’s something refreshing about a candidate who just says what he thinks rather than presenting soundbytes carefully crafted for each particular audience—Clinton is the prohibitive favorite and everybody knows that. It may be true that there’s a pining among some significant segment of the Democratic nominating electorate for someone further to the left—witness the continued clamoring for an Elizabeth Warren candidacy—most see Sanders as a curiosity rather than a plausible alternative.

Judging from Mr. Sanders’s trip here last week, there is real support for his message — though some Democrats also simply want to send a warning shot to Mrs. Clinton to get her to visit here more.

Mrs. Clinton’s large Iowa staff, which arranged her earlier visits to the state, when she met with small groups on a “listening tour” in carefully controlled settings, has taken the posture of not overreacting to Mr. Sanders or taking him too seriously. The Clinton team did not send anyone to observe or record the Sanders events, for instance.

Other Democratic strategists in the state, unaffiliated with any candidate, said Mrs. Clinton’s aura of inevitability, with a nearly 50-point lead over Democratic rivals in most recent nationwide polls, was one of her greatest challenges.

“At this point, expectations are really probably the toughest thing for the Clinton camp to manage,” said Brad Anderson, who ran President Obama’s re-election campaign in Iowa in 2012.

Almost as important as who wins the Iowa caucuses is the candidates’ finishing order. A strong second-place finish here can propel a candidate as the race heads to New Hampshire and other early voting states.

If Mrs. Clinton wins the caucuses but not by a significant margin, she will risk being embarrassed, and the runner-up will look like a serious challenger to what once appeared to be Mrs. Clinton’s inevitable road to the nomination.

“Let’s say she wins by less than 20 percent,” said Mr. Meyer, chairman of the Tri-County Democrats. “That’s a two-ticket-out-of-Iowa thing.”

This, too, strikes me as fantasy. While I suppose it’s possible for a candidate to catch fire with a bold new message, most of this is based on a vision of the primary process that’s long since gone away. In the days of 24/7/365 news coverage and analysis, nobody sneaks up on us anymore. And, while Iowa and New Hampshire continue to maintain undo and outsized attention in the process, it’s long been possible to ignore one or the other—particularly Iowa—and still coast to the nomination.

Grant Woodard, a Democratic strategist close to the Clinton team but not working for it, said, “They understand they’re going to be challenged, and they’re preparing for that inevitability.”

That challenge may be emerging sooner than expected. The large crowds for Mr. Sanders were a sign of many voters’ desire to hear and meet Democratic candidates in free-flowing town-hall-style gatherings, with policy issues discussed in detail, which Mrs. Clinton has so far avoided. Her campaign has promised that such events will follow this summer.

Mr. Sanders’s stop at a brewery in Ames on Saturday was so mobbed that more than 100 people who could not fit inside peered through the windows.

Again, this is laughable. How many people can fit into a room at the brewery? They’re not exactly designed to stage major events. Like the “overflow crowd” of 700 earlier in the story, it’s a willful distortion of reality.

Along with a picture of the scene he posted on Twitter, Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University who teaches a course on the caucuses, wrote, “Hillary should worry.”

Uh huh. Here’s the pic:


What is that, 150 people?

Iowa Democrats “truly hate Clinton’s ‘listening tour’ campaign,” Mr. Schmidt said in a follow-up email exchange. “They feel neglected.”

That much is almost certainly true. Once every four years, Iowa is relevant. But nobody outside the state should care that their feelings are hurt because Clinton isn’t playing their game.

But one reason the Clinton campaign may not be visibly breaking a sweat is that it is far ahead in building a network of organizers in Iowa, who are key to turning out voters in a caucus state. The campaign has 30 paid organizers around the state who are contacting Democrats at every level, from likely caucus attendees to local and statewide elected officials. The numbers are sure to grow as the caucuses approach.

Mr. Sanders has just two paid staff members so far in the state. “One of the problems we’re having is things are moving so fast our infrastructure hasn’t kept up with our political reality,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview. His Iowa director, Pete D’Alessandro, said he was planning to hire up to 30 paid staff members by midsummer.

Conversely, I’m skeptical that the number of paid staffers is itself a useful independent variable here. Clinton has been running longer and has exponentially more money. That she’s spending some of it on 30 staffers in Iowa isn’t that interesting.

Mrs. Clinton’s advisers are most concerned that Mr. Sanders might prove effective, particularly in the Democrats’ televised debates, at painting Mrs. Clinton as squishy or untrustworthy on liberal issues.

To me, that’s the potentially interesting angle. Like Pat Buchanan in 1992 or Ted Kennedy in 1980, an eloquent firebrand can cause trouble for a more bland runaway frontrunner. In those cases, they were challenging an incumbent president deemed to moderate by the base. Here, it’s a legacy candidate with no plausible challenger. Clinton has a tendency to be thin skinned in response to criticism, so it’ll be interesting to see how she deals with attacks in debates and elsewhere from Sanders, O’Malley and company.

The crowds at Mr. Sanders’s Iowa events appeared to be different from the state’s famously finicky tire-kickers. Many said they had already made up their mind to support Mr. Sanders. They applauded his calls for higher taxes on the rich to pay for 13 million public works jobs, for decisive action on climate change and for free tuition at public colleges.

“Look at all these people,” said Phyllis Viner, 68, a yoga instructor who attended his Davenport event at St. Ambrose University.

Lindsay O’Keefe, 22, who took a picture of a Sanders poster that read, “Paid for by Bernie 2016 (not the billionaires),” called Mr. Sanders “a really valuable candidate” who can “push Hillary to the left” even if he does not defeat her.

The next day, in Muscatine, Iowa, after a rally at a community college drew twice the expected audience of 50, Mr. Sanders seemed to be experiencing a contact high from the size of his crowds. He sat on a picnic table outside for a short interview.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mikey says:

    Well, on the other hand:

    Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders draws 4,000 to Minneapolis ‘town hall’

    Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) drew about 4,000 people to the American Indian Center on Sunday morning ahead of the 2016 primary season. A huge crowd converged in the south Minneapolis venue on East Franklin Avenue while other attendees waited outside. About 3,300 had signed up for the event.

    I’m no huge fan of Sanders–I know relatively little about him, really–but I still think his candidacy is important. The de facto coronation of Mrs. Clinton is simply not healthy in a political sense. No candidate should have a lock on the nomination this far out.

    I’m not advocating for the Democrats to adopt the GOP “clown car” approach, but some actual competition would be a good thing.

  2. stonetools says:


    I’m glad he’s out there, pushing those “radical” ideas:

    How Bernie Sanders’ ‘radical’ ideas entered the municipal mainstream

    Politico is also on the horse race bandwagon.
    As a liberal, I’m glad he is out there, pushing HRC left. But I have no illusions as to how things will turn out. HRC is still the presumptive nominee. But I’m glad she has a couple sparring parrtners.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    I’m not sure that that popularity of Sander’s brand of socialism is all that surprising after the recent meltdown of capitalism.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    @Ron Beasley: Paraphrasing G. B. Shaw – Republicans have dominated politics and policy for the last generation. The results are before us.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08: Some would say the last two generations. (going back to Nixon but ignoring the Dem controlled Congress)

  6. CSK says:

    I’ve heard that Sanders is drawing overflow crowds, but back in 2008, Sarah Palin was purportedly drawing overflow crowds, and see how that worked out.

  7. Mr. Prosser says:

    @stonetools: Sparring partners is a good choice of term to describe Sanders and O’Malley. They can give her a good workout in practice for the main bout against whomever shows up on the Republican side but they are not there to draw real blood.

  8. Moosebreath says:

    @Mr. Prosser:

    “They can give her a good workout in practice for the main bout against whomever shows up on the Republican side but they are not there to draw real blood.”

    No, they are there so that the next year’s coverage of the campaign is not limited to Republicans declaiming how they will save us from the horrors that has been the Obama Administration’s legacy and how Hillary Clinton is the center of evil in the universe. Having some of the news coverage focusing on the view from the other side is important.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    Sanders and O’Malley will most likely to serve to convince general election voters that Mrs. Clinton is a moderate and a centrist.

    Sanders won’t go negative, he knows perfectly well he’s not really running for president, and he will want Mrs. Clinton to win. O”Malley is harder to figure out since he apparently believes he’s going to run on his term as mayor of Baltimore and on his time as a roundly disliked governor.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    Yes, the NYT, and the rest of the media must have their horse race narrative. But Sanders message should be heard. If the NYT pretending he can challenge Hillary is what it takes, fine.

  11. Moosebreath says:


    “If the NYT pretending he can challenge Hillary is what it takes, fine.”

    Part of this is also that there is a huge disconnect between journalists view of Hillary and the general public’s:

    “This framing is not surprising, since, among journalists, Clinton is one of the least popular politicians. She is not forthcoming or entertaining with the press. She doesn’t offer good quotes. She doesn’t like journalists, respect what we do, or care to hide her disdain for the media. She feels that the right-wing press has tried to destroy her for decades, that the mainstream press got played like a cheap fiddle by the conservative press, and that even the liberal press was overwhelmingly hostile to her during her 2008 campaign.”

  12. Pinky says:

    I know that Jon Stewart is a creature of the Left, but that’s phenomenal.

  13. Gustopher says:

    I would rather have a beer with Bernie Sanders than with anyone else running for President.

    He’s someone I wish we had more of in politics: honest to a fault, outspoken, and simultaneously idealistic and pragmatic. Good lefty positions too, but we could really use people like him on the right as well.

  14. Tillman says:


    Well if they all tell two friends, and those two friends tell two friends, that’s like another three hundred people! 🙂

  15. Tyrell says:

    @Ron Beasley: Sanders is a likeable person and says what he believes regardless of how the chips fall. But this country does not need more socialism. That is the last thing we need.

  16. Gavrilo says:

    Bernie should barnstorm Iowa performing dramatic readings of his rape-fantasy erotica. He’d probably draw bigger crowds.

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    Don’t underestimate the power of the Clinton scandal industry. By this time next year the torrent of hostile media we’ll be forced to endure may well leave her candidacy a broken wreck.

  18. gVOR08 says:

    @Gavrilo: Stay classy.

  19. gVOR08 says:


    But this country does not need more socialism. That is the last thing we need.

    Or more diplomatically there are a lot of buried assumptions in that statement, care to air any of them out?

  20. superdestroyer says:


    Considering that the Republicans have controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House a grand total of six years out of the last 50 years. To blame everything on the Republicans is laughable. What is amazing is you demonstrate why Republicans should ever to a deal with Democrats. If a single Republican is involved in any political deal, then the Republicans will be blamed for the failure. However, Democrats are never blamed for any failure no matter how bad they screw up (See Detroit and Baltimore as current examples).

  21. Ben Wolf says:

    @Tyrell: Socialism simply means people who work get more of the rewards, whereas in capitalism those who own get more. I don’t think it’s wrong to say people who work and provide all the goods and services we consume deserve a lot more of the country’s wealth.

  22. gVOR08 says:

    @superdestroyer: I said a generation, not 50 years. Seems reasonable to take 1981 as the break point, when Reagan was inaugurated and after the mid-seventies when Hacker and Pierson note that corporations started to put serious money into politics. Since then, yes, Rs have had both Houses and the Presidency for only two Congresses. As have the Dems. So you can’t say Dems have had control. Of the 18 congresses starting in 1981; of the House, Senate, and White House, GOPs have had 2 out of three 10 times to the Dems 8. They’ve held the WH for 10 of the last 18 congresses. So control has been relatively even, but leaning GOP.

    I didn’t say GOPs had absolute control, but it’s a commonplace to talk about the rightward drift of the country in this period.

  23. superdestroyer says:


    Maybe the mistake is in thinking there really has been a rightward shift of the country. The federal budget is about the same percentage of GDP as it was in the 1970s. The number of people paid directly or indirectly by the government has gone up. The number of pages in the Code of Federal Regulations has gone up. when the Republicans have added Department on the cabinet and expanded the reach of the government.

    If one wanted to make the argument, the real change was how libertarian the Clinton Administration was compared to all of the Republicans. For all of the talk of the Thom Hartmann types about exporting American jobs, what have the Democrats done in their 16 years of controlling the White House or what legislation have been passed that would cause manufacturers to build more plants in the U.S.?