By Holly Otterbein
The famous curmudgeon shows his emotional side.
SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Bernie Sanders is getting warm and fuzzy.
The Democratic presidential candidate who wouldn’t be caught dead kissing babies or flipping burgers at state fairs has figured out a way to engage in retail politics on his own terms — and there’s evidence it might be working.
Over the past month, Sanders has held a series of small, share-your-pain town halls and other events, in which he’s asked voters to respond to prompts such as “Talk about your health care experience" and "Anybody in the room trying to make it on less than $15" an hour? People have told wrenching tales of not being able to afford treatment for PTSD after surviving a mass shooting, losing their home, and their boyfriend killing himself after being kicked off Medicaid, as the candidate offers sympathy and encouragement. At times, Sanders has cut himself off during a talk or ditched a planned speech to segue into a conversation with voters.
“How do you do well in school if you can’t hear what your professors are saying?” Sanders said at one event after a 19-year-old college student discussed having to pay more than $5,000 for a hearing aid. “And this is a story we hear a hundred times."
The emphasis on intimate, personal interactions with voters is a departure from the early days of Sanders’ 2020 campaign, when he often spoke uninterrupted for long periods of time at large rallies. When he held smaller town halls, Sanders would sometimes take a few questions from the audience and be done.
The more emotive style of campaigning — emotive for Sanders, at least — coincides with a small polling upswing for him after he stalled in some surveys in the early summer months. The Vermont senator had notably slipped in a handful of polls of the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, where retail politics is paramount.
“He does retail, it’s fair to say, in his own way,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, said after a Q&A with rallygoers in Iowa this month. “Particularly when you’re campaigning and winning votes in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and Nevada, it’s critical that he hears people and they hear him. It is truly a conversation.”
Though Sanders began holding smaller town halls and events months ago, his aides said he started making them more participatory at the beginning of August. The new format was on display during his 10-stop, three-day swing in Iowa last week. For instance, he was delivering his stump speech for about 15 minutes at a rally at his campaign office in Sioux City, Iowa — and then stopped.
“Let me take a break here and ask some of you a question,” he said. “I want people to tell me, if they could, tell me what they’re paying for health care right now. Anyone want to volunteer that?”
All across the room, hands shot up. “I just got hit by a car,” one man said, adding that he owes $4,000 for the trip to the ER and lives on money from Social Security. “I got rejected from Medicaid,” a woman said, adding she has paid more than $5,000 so far this year in out-of-pocket expenses.
Sanders’ advisers said they understand that campaigning with a personal touch is critical in early caucus and primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. But it isn’t always easy to persuade Sanders to put that knowledge into practice: For years, he had resisted his aides’ advice to tell his personal story on the stump. Then he relented this winter and placed his biography at the center of his kickoff rallies, only to largely let it recede after his launch.
In recent months, though, Sanders has increasingly participated in “selfie lines,” a practice Elizabeth Warren popularized. He took photos with supporters at almost every stop in Iowa last week, including at several events with actress Susan Sarandon, one of his most high-profile surrogates, and her dog, Penny.
Dave Johnson, a former Iowa city councilor who has endorsed Sanders, said it's critical for presidential candidates to engage in retail politics in his state because the hourslong caucuses are so demanding.
“With a caucus, it’s very important that your supporters are enthusiastic. Because unlike a primary, it’s not a 10-minute process where you go in and you vote and you leave,” Johnson said as Sanders snapped pictures with fans in his backyard after an ice cream social. “When people get photos with him or even donate $5 to him, it’s like an investment into this idea, this political revolution. It’s theirs now, and they’re much more likely to come out and caucus because of it.”
Sanders has especially high expectations in Iowa: He came within nearly a third of a percentage point of defeating Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016, and caucuses have a reputation of favoring liberal candidates. But many Democratic activists and operatives have named Warren’s Iowa team as the most organized, and Joe Biden has hired the biggest staff.
Sanders has spent six days in Iowa in August, more days than in any other state this month. While Sanders fell to fourth place in Iowa in Monmouth University and USA Today/Suffolk University surveys this summer, he's polling better in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Sanders’ team said it has nine campaign offices open in Iowa, with three more on the way by the end of September, and employs 51 staffers in the state, with plans to hire at least another 25 soon.
On the trail in Iowa last week, Sanders opened up in other ways: He took questions from reporters twice, something he rarely does. He brought his wife, grandson and son to a softball game between his campaign and members of the media. When his staff told reporters to give him some space while he was practicing before the game, he said, “You guys want to stay, they can stay.”
Sanders’ aides said his intimate town halls have helped them recruit more volunteers in Iowa and other states. They’ve also spread his message that the nation’s health care industry is failing and workers are suffering through the mouths of everyday voters. His social media team often quickly clips the interactions and shares them on social media.
Unlike some other parts of campaigning, Sanders’ aides also said he enjoys hearing the life stories of working-class Americans — and is energized by them.
"We’ll get in the car and he’ll tell me, ‘Did you hear that one? Did you hear this one?’" Shakir said. "They stick with him."