DES MOINES, Iowa—On Friday morning, Cyndi Conard’s home at the end of a snowy road was alive with pre-caucus energy. As Conard, a precinct captain in Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, removed quiche from her oven, Warren staff instructed volunteers how to persuade undecided voters to join their team, handing out door hangers, clipboards and hand warmers, the hum of human activity interrupted only by the squawk of Conard’s cockatoo Derby Doo.
They were preparing for the arrival of Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), one of Warren’s several designated torchbearers there to help the campaign as the impeachment trial continued to keep the candidate in D.C.
But Conard was nervous.
“They’ve done a good job, I will have to say, getting out there,” she said of Warren’s team. “I think his group has too. So it’s kind of hard to know what’s gonna happen.”
The “his” she was referring to is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and in the dwindling days before the Iowa caucuses, the energy among his supporters has propelled him to frontrunner status.
An hour west of Conard’s home, packed tight in the basement of a split-level home, two dozen Sanders supporters who gathered to canvass for the Vermont senator were—in the words of one volunteer, as he piled into his car to canvass the town of Greenfield, Iowa—“effing pumped.”
Sanders may have lost both the Iowa caucuses and the Democratic nomination in 2016, but after four years rekindling the passion that he inspired, years filled with political organizing, proselytizing the need for a bottom-up revolution and advancing his progressive policy platform into the Democratic mainstream,Sanders supporters were ready. Plus, one canvasser told The Daily Beast, Trump’s election, traumatic though it was, had lifted the veil of impossibility for an avowed socialist to win the White House.
“There already has been a revolution in this country in the last four years—it has been a revolution of the top against the bottom,” said Paul Rubin, a resident of San Francisco who, at age 71, had come to Iowa to volunteer for the one presidential candidate whom he has ever volunteered for in his life: Sanders.
Sanders, Rubin said, “is leading a movement—that’s become a phrase, it’s getting worn out, but it’s very true. It’s not about him, it’s about everybody here. It’s about people who have been divided and broken up into smaller and smaller more powerless and more powerless groups coming together and saying, ‘We deserve better.’”
As the canvassers awaited the arrival of Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), a Sanders’ endorser and the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, they went around the room, sharing slices of breakfast pizza and the reasons why they’d come to this small town in the dead of winter to boost Sanders’ chances in Monday’s caucuses.
“There’s people in rural West Virginia and there’s people in the inner city who both don’t have a fair shot, and neither party, the Republican or the Democratic establishment, want those people to be on the same side,” said Chris, who had travelled from Oakland, California, to volunteer for Sanders’ campaign but who had declined to give his last name. “And until those people come together and say, ‘Hey, we’re all getting screwed here, we all don’t have a fair shot to make it,’ until those people come together and really fight together, nothing’s going to change. And that’s what Bernie’s trying to do.”
Jonathan, a young man from New York who also declined to provide his last name, called Sanders’ campaign a nearly “spiritual thing for me.”
“It came in 2016 during a bit of a period of a rut,” Jonathan said. “I’d just graduated from a college that is like, notorious for like breaking the backs of people [with student debt], and a lot of my friends had to drop out.”
To a person, prospective canvassers at events in Greenfield and Des Moines told The Daily Beast that Sanders was the first person to bring them into the political fold, and though they stressed that the movement he’s inspired isn’t about him, they believe he is the best person to lead it.
It’s not that Warren supporters lack that passion for their candidate.
In Ames, Iowa, Jamie Otto, a student organizer for Warren at Iowa State University, told a group of about 100 people how her family lost everything when she was an eight-year-old in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which had left her homeless for a time. After learning about the Consumer Protection Bureau years later, she became a devout supporter of Warren, who was the driving force and intellectual godmother behind the agency..
“I’m 19 now,” she said. “I’m a senior at Iowa State University and Elizabeth still gives me the strength to keep fighting education and go to law school, so that I can get into the fight to make sure that no corrupt banker can ever get away with their crimes again, so that kids like me don’t have to worry about being in debt for the rest of their lives.”
Among those listening to Otto was Dolores Day, 68, a retired teacher from Ames.
“She makes me the address my fears and gives me confidence,” she said of Warren. “I think she can do it.”
Dennis Dake, 77, a retired Iowa State University professor, who spent all day Friday making calls for Warren was hoping for the best. Having followed her career since she appeared on Bill Maher’s show in the wake of the 2008 crash, he was thrilled when she decided to run.
“I’m most confident as I can be,” he said. “One thing that feels to me is that she’s so positive. She doesn’t run down other candidates. She was truly hurt after that last debate when Bernie essentially called her a liar. I thought she was right that the media made it into a big, big argument between them.”
That apprehension was nowhere to be found at an event back in Deerfield, where canvassers commonly framed Sanders’ election in terms of life or death, which helps explain the dedication—and, to some, fanaticism—to the Senator and his revolution.
“I get off the highways, go to the small towns, and they’re shuttered. They are, excuse me, effing shut down,” said Rubin. “There’s one diner and one fast food joint, but empty Main Streets. Empty Main Streets. Towns are killed.”
Rubin, sporting the gold Sanders-silhouette lapel pin, told The Daily Beast that the United States has already undergone a political revolution—just one of the top against the bottom.
“There has been a terrible revolution and people in the bubbles, people in the big cities who are doing okay, don’t get it because they don’t see it,” Rubin said.
Sanders supporters frequently express frustration with other candidates—among them, former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg—who have remarked that the end of the Trump presidency will return Americans to some semblance of normalcy. For them, as Jayapal said in her remarks, “Trump is both a symptom and a cause” of an economic, political, governmental system in crisis.
Santos, whose mother is an immigrant with no savings and whose sister is in medical debt, told The Daily Beast that the sacrifices they’ve made make them feel “robbed” of the life they would have been afforded if, for example, their mother had access to Social Security, or their sister’s medical costs were covered under a government program.
“The fight ages you,” Santos said. “I’m a 21-year-old who’s thinking about retirement and not even retirement for myself—retirement for my mom who, odds are, I’m gonna have to provide for. I’m a micro version of a wave that is coming.”
That esprit de corps will be critical to getting Sanders over the finish line in Iowa—not that his supporters think that his revolution will have been won in a single election.
“We all know that the fight doesn’t end here—it’s going to be a long journey,” said Parvati Santos of Miami, who arrived at the Greenfield event sporting a Warhol-style Bernie scarf that they got on Etsy. “All of his policies will take at least years, at least, to be fully implemented. So we all recognize that this is literally just the beginning. It’s only going to get harder from here, but we’re all here for our families, we’re all here for our future. This is the honestly fight of our lives, at least I know it is for me.”