ORIENT, Iowa ― Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was four minutes into the Q-and-A portion of a town hall in this rural town of 400 people on Sunday when a voter suggested that the political revolution need not be imminent.
“My concern is that I just read in the Monmouth poll that polled Iowa Democrats, and that poll revealed 75 percent of Iowa Democrats did not favor ‘Medicare for All,’” the man said, referring to a poll from the New Jersey university that had come out a few days earlier. “If it’s not resonating, and you’ve done a great job of explaining it ―”
Sanders politely cut the man off. The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, who was holding the town hall at the birthplace of Henry Wallace ― a legendary progressive whose unsuccessful 1948 bid for the presidency was built, in part, around a push for universal health insurance ― was in no mood to continue waiting.
“Don’t put all your faith in that particular poll, which is wrong in many aspects,” Sanders responded with a wave of his hand.
Seven hours later and some 170 miles to the east, California Sen. Kamala Harris was trying to convince Democrats to be patient. On the campus of Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, she pitched the crowd of 500 on what she’s branded her “3 a.m. agenda.” It’s shorthand for a set of policy proposals the former prosecutor sees as inherently nonideological, one focused on alleviating Americans’ most immediate concerns without making grand promises of full-scale societal change.
“Some people call it the witching hour. You know when you wake up in the middle of the night with that thought that’s been weighing on you?” she told the crowd. “For the vast majority of us, what we wake up thinking back on, it is never through the lens of the party with which we’re registered.”
“Let’s have a problem-solving president,” she continued. “Let’s deal with the issues that are challenging us.”
The riff on Americans’ late-night worries is Harris’ attempt to knit together a set of policy proposals that are more ambitious than those offered by former Vice President Joe Biden, but without the sweeping nature of those put forward by candidates like Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Harris has proposed pay hikes for underpaid teachers, a tax cut that would give $500 a month to every American family making less than $100,000 and a plan to deliver universal health care within 10 years.
Her positioning puts her on a collision course with Sanders, who has long argued ambitious, blanket policies to confront the malicious influence of big business and transform American society ― including Medicare for All, free public colleges and universities, and the total elimination of student debt ― are both good ideas and good politics. Both candidates, who are now trailing Biden and Warren in most public polling, are counting on their approaches to power their political fortunes, starting here in Iowa.
Sanders, who narrowly lost the Iowa caucuses to Hillary Clinton in 2016, is hoping his decision to double-down on the need for a political revolution will recreate that momentum four years later. And after months of occasionally intermittent commitment to the first state to vote in the Democratic primary, a five-day Harris bus tour and a new television ad in the state was designed to show off both her campaign’s newfound emphasis on the state and her decision to fully embrace a nonideological pitch.
In an interview, Sanders argued the type of “incrementalism” pushed by Harris would cost the Democratic Party a chance to defeat Trump.
“You want incrementalism? Then Trump is going to win the election,” the Vermont independent told HuffPost.
“The only way we defeat Donald Trump is by having a candidate, such as Bernie Sanders, who is going to run a campaign of energy and excitement and have the largest voter turnout in the history of this country,” he added. “The only way we get that turnout is when we speak to the pain that so many Americans are feeling right now and their disgust and frustration with establishment politics.”
“The American people do not want to see another complicated health care proposal that they don’t understand, that will take 10 years to implement,” he continued, making it clear he was referring, at least in part, to Harris.
You want incrementalism? Then Trump is going to win the election. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Thaddeus Hawley, the chair of the Adair County Democrats, attended Sanders’ event in Orient and backed the senator in the 2016 election. He’s neutral this cycle and said voters in his county are “split” between more ambitious candidates like Sanders and pragmatists like Harris. He said the candidates in the best position to succeed are those who can prove acceptable to voters in both camps, listing off Warren, Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker as possibilities.
But there are signs pragmatism is the ultimate preference. Rep. Cindy Axne (D), who won the U.S. House seat covering the state’s southwestern quadrant in 2018 and is neutral in the primary, said Iowa Democrats wanted candidates who are willing to take small victories when they find them.
“I think Iowans are always looking for somebody who’s solutions-oriented and pragmatic,” she said in an interview with HuffPost at the state fair on Monday. “I’d like to see the candidates talk about real, tangible solutions that can actually get us somewhere as opposed to just saying, well, this is where we need to end up.”
Attendees at Harris’ event in Mount Pleasant were impressed with her performance, but almost all were still considering other candidates. (“I wish we could somehow amalgamate them all into one candidate,” said David Goodman, a professor who attended the event.) Sanders’ crowd in Orient had some undecided voters, but also a sizable portion of Bernie-or-bust caucusgoers. If there was one thing that united both crowds, it was an emphasis on finding a candidate who can beat Trump.
Debi Plum, a school board member in Fairfield who attended Harris’ event, said her top three candidates are Booker, Harris and Warren.
“I’m looking for someone who has the personality and leadership,” she said. “The reality is one person can have a lot of detailed plans, but they’re just one person.”
Both campaigns built packed schedules around this weekend’s two major events in Iowa ― the annual Wing Ding dinner on Friday night and speeches at the state fair in Des Moines. Sanders held a rally in Des Moines aimed at the Latinx community and toured a factory farm. Harris rode across the state in a bus emblazoned with her name in giant lettering and bookended her trip with endorsements from a politically powerful former state party chair, Sue Dvorsky, and from the state’s Asian and Latino Coalition.
Midway through her journey across the state, Harris stopped at a family farm, accompanied by a crew gathering footage for future television ads. At the end of her tour, she held a roundtable discussion, chatting about ways to fight consolidation in the industry, how agriculture can help combat climate change and just why she admires farmers so much,
“You don’t have the luxury of engaging in some intellectual, political conversation,” she said. “You’re adaptable.”