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The good news for Bernie Sanders arrived during a Jan. 10 Iowa snowstorm so severe that cars and trucks were left abandoned along the highway and his campaign had to cancel the day’s events. Just before 6 p.m., Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, got a phone call alerting him that Sanders had edged into a narrow lead in the influential Des Moines Register/CNN Iowa poll set to be released minutes later. Other polls showed a similarly close race, some with different leaders. But all suggested that with three weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, Sanders was poised to do something almost no one thought possible after he suffered a heart attack three months ago: win Iowa.
The next morning’s Register carried a banner front-page headline (“SANDERS AHEAD”) and photo illustration of the top tier hurtling down a snowy hill crammed into a toboggan, arranged in the order of their poll performance: Sanders in the lead with 20%, followed by Elizabeth Warren (17%), Pete Buttigieg (16%), and Joe Biden (15%). Later that day, Sanders led a rally at a Newton, Iowa, middle school, and although he found time to remark on the frigid weather (“a nice Vermont day”) and blast Donald Trump (“a liar and a fraud”), he stuck to his familiar script and didn’t acknowledge his new frontrunner status: “We are here to transform this country and create a government and an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1%.”
Sanders is practically the only person in Iowa who isn’t talking about his comeback. “Seeing the newspaper this morning made me think, Wow—this is really going in the direction I think it should go,” said Katie Goff, 30, an environmental scientist who’d come out to canvass for Sanders in Des Moines. Although support for Sanders dipped after his heart attack, Travis Puls, 28, a vape shop owner who came to see Sanders in Newton, noted, “The vast majority of Bernie supporters are still Bernie supporters.”
It will take more than just his hardcore supporters for Sanders to win the Democratic nomination. After losing to Hillary Clinton in a razor-close Iowa caucus four years ago, Sanders’s path to victory now lies in expanding turnout beyond caucus regulars to pull in more independents and new voters who disproportionately support him. “I hope what the poll does is give those who don’t often vote or go to a caucus a reason to get involved,” Shakir said. “For those who are wondering ‘Does Bernie have a shot to win?’ the answer is yes, he does have a shot to win. That will hopefully inspire people who might otherwise stay home on a cold night in February to come out and caucus.”
A Sanders win in Iowa would still be considered an upset. Despite consistently rating in the top tier of candidates in both early states and national polls, Sanders’s support is thought to be intense but limited in size. The Register poll offers data to back both assertions: 59% of his supporters say they’ll definitely caucus for him, a level well above his rivals; but voters view Warren more favorably (70%, vs. 65% for Sanders). And when first and second choices are combined—a key figure, since candidates must meet a 15 percent threshold to be viable in the caucus—Warren narrowly beats Sanders, 33% to 32%, with Buttigieg (31%) lurking just behind.
But Sanders has several advantages that are difficult to gauge. They include a hyper-dedicated volunteer operation and a proven ability to mint money. His campaign raised $96 million last year from more than 1 million donors, including $34.5 million in the fourth quarter alone. He’s better equipped than anyone in the field to fund a strong campaign throughout the spring and, if necessary, into the party’s convention in July.
So far, however, Sanders’s strength hasn’t generated the kind of alarm on Wall Street and among the Democratic establishment that Warren did when she shot to the top of the Register poll last September. That’s largely because most political analysts and campaign strategists still don’t believe he can win. “Virtually no one on Wall Street thinks that Sanders could win the general election—partly because of his age, partly because his agenda is so radical and uncompromising,” says Greg Valliere, chief U.S. policy strategist at AFG Investments.
Doubts about Sanders also linger from his heart attack in October, which raised questions about whether he’d even be able to continue—concerns initially shared by members of his campaign. “I was out here a few days after his heart attack,” said Representative Ro Khanna of California, co-chairman of the Sanders presidential campaign, while backstage at an Iowa City climate rally on Jan. 12. “That was the point of greatest uncertainty for the campaign. But what I saw was 30 or 40 people at each of the stops coming out and willing to knock on doors and continue on. That’s when I realized that what he had built was so durable, so resilient, that it’s put him in the position that he’s in right now.”
The days leading up to the Feb. 3 caucus will test that durability. Already this cycle, Biden, Warren, and Buttigieg have each taken a turn as Iowa frontrunner. But Sanders may be tough to dislodge. His support seems less likely to yo-yo than some of his rivals’. “The biggest thing for me is that he has consistency,” said Berlin Menendez, 24, a formulation scientist in Iowa City and campaign volunteer who was clutching a stuffed Bernie Sanders doll at the climate rally. “The fact is that he hasn’t wavered on his beliefs in all of his years in office.”
One way Sanders has changed is in how he’s decided to compete for the nomination. In 2016, he chose not to go after Clinton aggressively, famously declaring that he was “sick of hearing about your damned emails.” He ended up losing Iowa to Clinton by the tightest of margins, 49.8% to 49.6%, a setback he never managed to overcome.
This time, Sanders is leaving no doubt that he and his campaign are playing hardball with ideological adversaries and allies alike. During the Jan. 14 Democratic debate, Sanders reprised an attack he’s been making on the trail, criticizing Biden over his Iraq War vote and scoffing at the former vice president’s claim to be, as a new TV ad puts it, “someone tested and trusted around the world.”
Sanders’s campaign has also gone after Warren, a purported friend and ally, by circulating instructions to campaign surrogates to attack her as an elitist unable to unify the party, a move first reported by Politico. Warren responded by pouring gasoline on a CNN report that Sanders told her in a private 2018 meeting that a woman couldn’t get elected president. Sanders vehemently denied the report. But Warren confirmed it in a public statement and on the debate stage, raising doubts about Sanders’s truthfulness.
The frosty exchange between the two immediately after the debate ended—Warren refused to shake Sanders’s hand and, in audio later released by CNN, accused him of calling her a liar—left no doubt that this time, Sanders is doing more than just making a point. He’s running to win. And there’s no reason to believe he can’t do it. —With Emma Kinery
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