DES MOINES —Volunteers going door to door here on behalf of Bernie Sanders sometimes sport T-shirts with a message fitting for the first nominating state: “The Revolution Starts Here.”
There may be no more important event on the calendar for Sanders than Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. He is counting on a political revolution to sweep him into the White House. But with Hillary Rodham Clinton regaining strength over the past month in the fight for the Democratic nomination, there’s a growing sense that Iowa could instead be the beginning of the end if Sanders doesn’t pull off back-to-back victories here and in New Hampshire.
The Vermont senator is stronger in neighboring New Hampshire, but some analysts say that Clinton could absorb a loss there and quickly rebound, given a subsequent primary calendar that plays to her strengths — including a far greater appeal at this point among minority voters. The next two contests take place in Nevada and South Carolina, where Latinos and African Americans will be key to the outcome.
All of which makes Iowa — the site of the second Democratic debate on Saturday night — hugely important to Sanders’s insurgent bid.
“He has no chance if he doesn’t win Iowa,” said David Axelrod, the chief strategist in both of President Obama’s campaigns. “Even if he were to win New Hampshire, it could be written off as a home-state victory because he’s from across the border.”
Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist, said he thinks winning both states is “the one scenario Sanders has got: Pull off those two big wins and change the dynamic from everyone seeing Clinton as so formidable.”
After a pair of losses, Trippi added, the narrative in the media would be “Clinton is collapsing.” And for Sanders, a pair of wins could prompt voters in the following states to give Sanders a closer look. In 2008, Obama was trailing Clinton in early polls out of South Carolina. Obama wound up trouncing her there, thanks largely to a shift in sentiment among African Americans after he won in Iowa.
Sanders, whom most pundits wrote off as a fringe candidate when he entered the race in April, acknowledged the importance of winning both of the first two states during a recent visit to a campaign office in Nashua, N.H., where he told supporters: “If we win in Iowa and New Hampshire, it opens up for us a path toward victory.”
His campaign schedule suggests the same.
Sanders has spent 23 days campaigning in Iowa, holding 55 events, according to his aides — more time than he’s spent in New Hampshire or any other state. Aides say the Sanders campaign has 20 offices open across Iowa and 74 paid staffers on the ground, numbers approaching the machine Clinton has built.
Clinton got a much earlier start building her organization here, and despite finishing third in Iowa during her 2008 presidential run, she enjoys several built-in advantages.
The Iowa caucus electorate skews older and female — in 2008, 57 percent of the participants were women — and both groups are more partial to Clinton than Sanders, according to polling in the state. While the race appeared to close during the summer, Clinton has now opened up a double-digit lead in recent polls.
From an office tucked between a supermarket and a liquor store, Sanders’s brain trust in Iowa is plotting ways to broaden the electorate.
The focus has been on several demographics more favorable to the senator, including those younger than 30, particularly college students; working-class families who could be particularly receptive to Sanders’s message of economic justice; and older progressives. Aides joke that they have a lock on the men-with-ponytails demographic.
“We need to, and we are, working on expanding the traditional view of what a caucus-goer is,” said Pete D’Alessandro, Sanders’s Iowa campaign coordinator.
Many of the potential supporters being targeted by the campaign have not participated in the Iowa caucuses, a quirky exercise in democracy that requires spending several hours in the evening at one of 1,682 precinct gatherings across the state and publicly declaring one’s allegiance after arguing the candidates’ merits with friends and neighbors.
Each of the groups that Sanders is targeting comes with its own set of challenges. Some of the working-class adults his campaign is going after, for example, are members of labor unions that have endorsed Clinton. Siding with Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, will mean publicly crossing their bosses in some cases.
In Iowa and elsewhere, meanwhile, college students have emerged as some of Sanders’s most enthusiastic supporters, helping fuel the eye-poppingly large turnouts at his rallies. But younger voters also tend to be among the most unreliable, and it remains an open question how many will show up on caucus night.
Iowa is home to about 60 colleges and universities, including “an irrational number” of private institutions, said Steffen W. Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University.
He points out that the timing of this year’s caucuses is helpful to Sanders in this regard. Eight years ago, the last time there were competitive Democratic caucuses, they were held on Jan. 3, when most students were on winter break. The upcoming caucuses are set for Feb. 1, when most will have returned to campus.
There is potential for a candidate to change the complexion of the electorate, as President Obama demonstrated in the 2008 caucuses. More than 239,000 people participated that year, about double the typical turnout. In past cycles, only about 20 percent of eligible Democrats had turned out on caucus night.
J. Ann Selzer, who conducts Iowa polling for Bloomberg News and the Des Moines Register, noted that the structure of Sanders’s support is similar to the coalition that Obama assembled in 2008.
Based on an October poll that showed Clinton with a seven-point lead (48-41 percent), Sanders led by at least 15 points among first-time Democratic caucus-goers, independents and likely caucus-goers younger than 45.
“These leads meaningfully represent strength among the same groups that propelled Obama to a caucus victory,” Selzer wrote in an e-mail.
While the Democratic caucuses are limited to Democratic voters, the rules also allow participants to change their registration on caucus night, so in theory, at least, candidates can tap into Iowa’s large pool of independents and boost their numbers.
In a series of interviews, Sanders’s top aides in Iowa and Vermont hedged on whether Sanders needs to win Iowa outright. Ultimately, they said, Sanders will have the resources to continue running until the convention, setting up the nomination to be decided by delegate count and not a handful of early states.
“I think we’re going to do extremely well in Iowa,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager. “But do I think we need to win outright to have a success? I don’t think so.”
Sanders has used Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other social media to help build his following. A recently launched TV ad campaign may also attract the older voters currently breaking in Clinton’s direction, aides say.
Like Clinton, the Sanders campaign has an expansive ground game of canvassers going door to door to gauge where potential caucus-goers stand — and persuade them to choose Sanders. According to the campaign, Sanders volunteers knocked on 22,279 doors last weekend.
It can be quite a slog. On an unseasonably warm Sunday here, a pair of volunteers armed with a list of strategically selected homes on Des Moines’s east side knocked on 16 doors before finding a family interested in listening to their pitch.
In one case, a man told them he was a Republican and had sleeping children in the house. At another home, a woman said she preferred Clinton but wasn’t inclined to caucus. There was no answer at the other 14 doors.
Finally, the volunteers, Tim Wheelock and Marlis Wagner, encountered a couple who said they were torn between Sanders and Clinton.
“I’m leaning toward Bernie — or I hate to say it — Hillary. I’m on the fence,” said Doug Campbell, 44, who works at the automotive shop at a local Walmart and was wearing a Harley T-shirt and black shorts.
Over the course of 20 minutes, Wheelock and Wagner answered questions and relayed Sanders’s views on a range of issues, including his plan to provide free tuition at public universities and colleges and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. They left without any firm commitments.
But the volunteers themselves embody the kind of voters Sanders is seeking in Iowa. Wheelock, 21, reflects the enthusiasm that Sanders has generated among millennials; he put his life in New York on hold to volunteer for the campaign in Iowa.
Wagner, 66, is a former special education teacher who has never participated in a caucus.
“I don’t feel like there’s ever been a politician as sincere and as honest as Bernie,” she said.
Both candidates plan to spend increasing amounts of time in the state as the caucuses approach.
Iowa is a key priority for Clinton in part because of her determination to wipe away what happened in 2008, when she finished third behind then-Senator Obama and former senator John Edwards. “It’s been a priority since day one,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director.
Her advisers attribute her rise to her performance in the first Democratic debate, along with her daylong testimony before a congressional committee investigating the September 2011 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya — which together seem to have blunted what had been the rockiest period of her candidacy.
Two factors contributed to her problems during the summer. The first was how she handled questions about her use of a private e-mail account and server as secretary of state. It wasn’t until late summer that she began to address the issue directly in a series of interviews.
Then, in the first debate, Sanders declared the public wasn’t interested “in your damn e-mails.” That was a political gift for the former secretary and a statement the senator has since tried to walk back. Whether because of that or the lack of much new information about the e-mails in the past month, the issue has been far less prominent, to her benefit.