It was not the typical Bernie Sanders crowd.
A dozen Iowans in their 60s, 70s and beyond, nearly all white-haired and wearing glasses, shuffled into the basement meeting room of the Estherville public library last Friday, to hear from a Sanders staffer about seniors issues. Estherville is in Emmet County, in deep-red northwestern Iowa, a county that Hillary Clinton tied for first with John Edwards in the 2008 caucus. You could barely find a demographic more skeptical of Sanders’s “political revolution” (aside from Republicans, of course), but that’s exactly why they were all here.
As caucus night in Iowa draws near, both campaigns are working hard to motivate their base, but also to shore up their weaknesses. With Clinton, that means blunting Sanders’s advantage with young people on college campuses. To accomplish that, Clinton has already deployed Katy Perry and Lena Dunham to Iowa events, and is sending singer Demi Lovato this week. For Sanders, the goal is to improve his standing among older Iowans. He trailed Clinton 56 percent to 26 percent of likely caucus-goers over 65 in the latest Des Moines Register poll.
To help with this task, Sanders has Bruce Koeppl.
Bruce enters the Estherville library’s meeting room on his motorized scooter with walking cane wedged between his knees, navigating his way around the table to set up at the front. Sporting a beard and ponytail, Bruce has the look of your typical Sanders outsider-type supporter, but he’s actually an old pro at this.
Bruce has worked on caucus campaigns since his college days, serving in staffing roles on Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Joe Biden, and Paul Simon’s Iowa operations. For the past 23 years he’s worked for AARP on their advocacy side, including as a state and regional director. He retired last March, but couldn’t stay out of the policy and political world for long, joining the Sanders campaign as a senior adviser.
To start off the meeting Bruce plays a 9-minute video of Sanders’s positions on these issues. Sanders himself narrates, speaking directly to the camera while slick graphics flash over the screen to explain Social Security’s solvency and other topics.
“Hi, this is Senator Bernie Sanders,” the video begins. “Much of the media often approaches politics as if it were a baseball game or a soap opera. Who’s leading in the latest poll? How much money did a candidate raise? Did someone say something really dumb last night? That’s what a lot of the media thinks modern politics should be about. I disagree. I’m old-fashioned, I guess.”
Notably, Sanders begins and ends with a call to distribute the video to friends, family and neighbors. This was specifically designed, scripted, and shot for organizing work. Bruce often leaves a dozen or more extra DVDs behind.
This Iowa Caucus cycle has seen a wide mix of strategies old and new for winning the all-important lead-off state. Social media organizing and massive rallies from Sanders in towns large and small has many thinking his campaign has found the key to turning out first-time caucus-goers to score the upset against Clinton.
But they’re also sticking with tried-and-true organizing tactics like these, well away from the media spotlight, to seal the deal.
Bruce begins his discussion by asking the attendees what they spent their Social Security cost of living increase on this last year. The room chuckles (there was no increase).
“I don’t remember being able to buy a cup of coffee with mine,” one man says.
Several around the table share their stories on dealing with Medicare. One man’s mother had an expensive knee operation that was covered by it. Another was amazed and frustrated with how much prescription drugs cost, despite being cheaper in other countries.
Bruce notices a framed picture on the wall of three horses pulling farm machinery and says it reminds him of Sanders: that he’s a workhorse. He recounts the many battles Sanders has fought on these issues and argues that something special is happening in this campaign that could change Washington.
Some of the attendees are skeptical. This is Steve King country after all, where local Democrats have seen their candidates defeated at the federal, state and local level in many of the past election cycles. Single payer sounds nice to them, but they know the reality of the shortcomings of Democratic politics like few others.
They pepper Bruce with questions. How can Sanders really get it done? Wouldn’t he need a Democratic Congress? What if he selected Elizabeth Warren as his vice president to hand the torch off to after some time?
The questions aren’t hostile, just honest, and Bruce walks them through the possibilities in a calm and collected manner.
“We need a champion to take on Big Pharma,” Bruce asserts, softly hitting the table with his hand. “Bernie hasn’t taken their money ... On raising the cap [for Social Security income], it’s not a complicated fix. It’s having the will to go fight for it.”
Despite the temptation to talk only political positioning, the group seems to enjoy the issue discussion.
“That’s what Bernie’s got to do, force the Republicans back to talking about the issues,” says Dale Green, a 90-year-old retiree from Estherville. “I’m impressed because he talks about issues, not personality ... The parties used to be a lot more similar. I voted for Dewey, my wife voted for Truman, it wasn’t a big deal. They weren’t that different back then!”
Carol and Jerry Plouth of Estherville came to the meeting undecided, even though they both caucused for Clinton in 2008. The Plouths nodded along to many parts of the Sanders video and seemed engaged with the discussion. But they still had their doubts.
“I thought it was educational, lot of good points. I took a good, long look at his stand on Social Security, that’s a big scare for people our age,” Carol said afterward. “I don’t know, those top two Democrats are a toss-up.”
“I want the Democrats to get in so bad, but I don’t know if he can quite cut the mustard,” added Jerry. “I think he’s got some good ideas. Maybe if he can get people interested in voting.”
But Bruce has found plenty of new converts in these meetings before. Sometimes it just takes some prodding from the faithful.
At a meeting in Algona earlier in the day, a group of seven gathered in the library’s kitchen (rental fee: $12), nearly all Sanders supporters already. They were there to get more information to disseminate to their friends.
“I belong to two social organizations in Fenton,” Valerie Cole, a 60-year-old from Fenton, said after the meeting as she strategized how to win over her friends. “You get familiar with these ladies. You go up for coffee, I find out a lot more, that’s where all the gossip is at. I can leave some packets up there.”
Surprisingly, a lot of the outreach work with older Iowans in these rural communities is being done online. Everyone at the Algona meeting talked about how they would share the information on Facebook.
“When he first started saying things on Facebook, that’s where I started paying attention to him,” Cole said of how she first came to know about Sanders.
On the seniors front, Sanders himself has just recently switched up his famously focused economic inequality stump speech to a more Social Security-focused message near the top of his rally message.
Behind the scenes, however, this work has been going on for some time. Bruce will complete his 15th of these meetings soon, and won’t even venture a guess at how many miles he’s put on his van. Turnout for his small meetings only range in the dozens, but they’re slowly moving a difficult constituency over to Sanders’s side. It’s an old-fashioned approach to an old-fashioned audience, and one that can be difficult to quantify. But if you read the recent polling in Iowa, something is clearly happening here. And if Sanders can win over just a few more older Iowans to his corner on caucus night, he might pull off that upset.
“I used to be a Hillary supporter, but I’m not anymore,” Cole said. “When I got this stuff from Bernie on my computer, that’s what changed my mind. He was just telling us what actually was going on in Congress.”