Elections

Supporters ponder next step after 'Summer of Sanders'

Clinton regains lead in polls

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders
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CEDAR RAPIDS — On a late October Saturday afternoon, Stephen and Karen Steininger joined thousands of like-minded Iowans in a rally for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Under the warm autumn sun, the Altoona couple sang and chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, oligarchy has to go” and “Feel the Bern” ahead of the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.

“He says what real voters want to hear,” Stephen Steininger said. “He talks about the things us people from the ’60s still believe in, but haven’t found in other candidates.”

“No one says it as boldly as Bernie,” Karen Steininger added.

Nearby, Cory and Brigid Ernst — “no relation to her,” Brigid said, referring to Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst — joined in support of the candidate whom Cory said represents the “working class, not the corporate interests.”

“I was excited when Hillary Clinton decided to run. I thought she was the one,” said Brigid Ernst, also of Altoona. Although she could be happy with Clinton or former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, “Bernie represents my core beliefs.”

Folks such as the Ernsts and Steiningers propelled Sanders to the top of Iowa polls over the summer. An August Quinnipiac University Poll had Sanders leading Clinton 41 percent to 40 percent and a September CBS News/YouGov poll had him up 43 percent to 33 percent.

Now Clinton is back on top. Loras and Monmouth College polls last week showed the former secretary of state leading Sanders by 38 and 41 percentage points, respectively.

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“He is running to win, as promised,” said Sanders supporter Jeffrey Cox of Iowa City. “I think he thinks he has a realistic shot at catching up and winning the nomination and an even better shot at winning the general election.”

Not everyone is so optimistic.

“Of course he knows he’s not going to win the nomination,” northern Iowa Democratic activist Kurt Meyer said. If Sanders thought the nomination was within his grasp, he wouldn’t have pulled Clinton out of “email quicksand” with his comment in the Democratic debate about being “sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”

Despite the polls, Donna Hoffman, University of Northern Iowa political science professor, expects he will continue to campaign and maintain “a decent percentage of supporters” in Iowa, maybe 25 percent.

That’s because his support is real, “albeit with a ceiling well below the front-runner,” according to Christopher Budzisz, who teaches political science and directs the Loras College Poll. They’ll stick with Sanders because “for now, they get to have their cake and eat it, too — get to vote for the candidate further to the left without risk of losing much in the long run.”

So the question is whether Sanders continues to run as a candidate for the presidency or as the champion of a progressive movement.

He won’t be a protest candidate, according to Cox. In the October 2014 meeting in Iowa City, Sanders made clear that he would not “run like (consumer advocate Ralph) Nader.”

“That would marginalize his views, which are, in his opinion, majority views in the country,” Cox said.

It’s more likely, said Chris Larimer, a UNI political science professor, that Sanders will fill the role of the “liberal candidate who says what party activists like to hear, but whom party activists realize lacks electability.”

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Whatever he does, Sanders cannot be ignored because “he’s mobilized so many passionate voters (that) Democrats can’t lose or alienate,” Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt said.

Regardless of what happens next, Sanders and his supporters can claim success, said Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor.

“I suspect his concern was more that Clinton was a bit too far to the right on some issues — the Iraq War vote — and too cozy with Wall Street,” Hagle said. “I suppose that could be characterized as a protest candidate, but I suspect that he just wanted to put some issues on the table and also try to pull Clinton back to the left. He was mostly successful on both counts.”

However, as Clinton rises in the polls, the consensus seems to be that Sanders will emerge as the leader of a progressive movement that can be a force for reform.

“This really wasn’t about him the way that presidential campaigns are about the candidates,” Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said. “I’ve never seen less ego than in Bernie Sanders. For him, it’s about the ideas, mobilizing a population. That’s what’s at the root of a political revolution.”

Rather than leave his constituency angry and upset, Goldford said, Sanders could remain as the movement’s spokesman “if he believes the message is more important than he is.”

The problem with that, according to Cox, is that Sanders “has never been an institution builder.”

So Sanders will have to pass the torch to another progressive — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, Meyer said.

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“I mean, Bernie’s, what — 74?” he said. “Give him credit. He lit the pilot light on this subject that has grown cold since (Minnesota Sen.) Paul Wellstone’s plane crash.

“You have to be grateful and respectful and even a bit excited about both the message and the messenger. It was great fun while it lasted, er, I mean, began anew.”

Cox suggested organizations such as the Progressive Democrats of America might take the reins to “capture and perpetuate the enthusiasm we see for Sanders.”

“Nothing on the horizon, but watch this space,” Cox said.

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