DES MOINES — When U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders narrowly lost the Iowa caucuses in 2016, Patrick Bourgeacq Pinzón wondered if he could have done more to help.
He first heard the senator at a backyard event early in that cycle, where Bourgeacq Pinzón mistakenly thought he was going to hear from former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank. He left surprised at how much he agreed with Sanders on issues like combating climate change, raising the minimum wage, and universal health care.
He caucused for Sanders and phone banked for him "a little bit." Following Sanders' narrow loss in Iowa and losses in other states, Bourgeacq Pinzón realized that, yes, he should have done more.
"That made me decide that if I want my candidate to win, I need to work for him," Bourgeacq Pinzón, 55, said.
Now, when he leaves his job in international admissions at Drake University, he'll often knock on doors for a couple hours. He phone banks more regularly. He'll volunteer at events and "just work those events wherever I'm needed."
Bourgeacq Pinzón's journey from curious to committed volunteer is one the Sanders campaign aims to emulate across Iowa. Sanders already has the firmest base in the field, according the latest Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll, even as he continues to jostle in third place. Now, the Sanders campaign is working to turn that enthusiastic base into caucus victory.
"We are the candidate who has a base," Sanders Iowa State Director Misty Rebik said. "Having a base is the most important thing for caucus night, because this isn't a primary, this isn't a vote. People can't just show up whenever and do it, right? You need an enthusiastic, excited, trained, disciplined, focused group of people who show up for you on caucus night. And that all starts with the committed base."
The campaign staffers say they are mobilizing that enthusiasm to expand their support: Sanders supporters have knocked on 110,000 doors in Iowa — including 22,000 the weekend before Thanksgiving — and made 3 million voter contact attempts in the state.
The campaign is also getting a boost with a "working and active endorsement" from the political wing of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the state's largest progressive group. When CCI Action Fund communicates or rallies around issues it champions, such as fighting factory farms or in favor of "Medicare for All," it will also promote Sanders as the candidate most aligned with their cause.
The campaign aimed to have one volunteer at each of the 1,678 Iowa caucus precincts; the number of signups led the campaign to up its volunteer goal to 4,000, or more than two volunteers per precinct.
Rebik said they wanted to have people who understood the process on hand to help with potentially, and often inherently, chaotic events, as well as training to help folks who don't regularly participate in the caucus understand it.
While cautioning that how these volunteers are used and organized is the ultimate key, Iowa political strategist Norm Sterzenbach said the effort has the potential to be "a hell of an operation that other campaigns will be envious of." Sterzenbach worked for Beto O'Rourke's Iowa campaign until the candidate dropped out in early November. He joined Amy Klobuchar's campaign after this interview.
Of likely Democratic caucusgoers who name Sanders as their top candidate, 57% say their minds are made up. For comparison, 27% of November poll leader Pete Buttigieg's supporters say the same. It allows Sanders to focus on adding to his support versus splitting that effort with making sure supporters don't drift to other camps, Sterzenbach said.
"Sanders folks, I always believed would run through walls (for him), so they're going to go through walls," Sterzenbach said. "It's a good place to be in. I'd rather be in that place than some others. His challenge is growth, whereas the challenge for a (U.S. Sen. Elizabeth) Warren or a Buttigieg is about shoring up support."
That enthusiasm also puts Sanders on solid ground for caucus night, even if he doesn't grow his support significantly, Sterzenbach said. The 2008 caucuses hold the turnout record with about 240,000 caucusgoers. Even if 2020 is destined to top that, a crowded field could make for thin margins to reach the 15% viability threshold at the precinct level. (Sterzenbach predicted caucus turnout between 2016's 176,000 and 2008's record.)
Every campaign wants its support to peak on caucus night, but Sanders' support has a "steadiness" that could prove key, Sterzenbach said.
In an effort to turn that steady, enthusiastic base into additional supporters on caucus night, the campaign has leaned into "movement politics" style organizing. In short, it puts daily issues people face first, and backs into how their candidate will address it. The goal is to "demystify" politics and talk about how it and resulting policies affect their lives, Rebik said.
"We know over and over again you can talk about statistics until you're blue in the face all day long. That does not change people's minds and that does not change people's hearts," Rebik said.
Rebik's background in movement politics is something the campaign didn't have last time, current Sanders adviser and 2016 state director Pete D'Alessandro said. It's a strategy that relies on keeping enthusiasm stoked and supporters mobilized over the long-term, and not just around headcounts of support, he said.
D'Allessandro praised the 2016 team — after all, Sanders went from 6% support in a January 2015 Iowa Poll to 42% in the final Iowa Poll of that cycle a year later, and finished in a razor-thin second place with 49.6% caucus night support. But "we just didn't have enough people in the day-to-day of the campaign that understood movement politics," he said.
Rebik founded the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa. Part of her job was convincing people "to risk everything" and fight back against employers mistreating them, or stealing wages, she said. In contrast, she's now asking people to caucus — a less dramatic act but one where she stresses "everything is on the line."
"How do we raise the level of what's important, of what's at stake here?" Rebik said. "So that's what we're doing. we're helping people understand this isn't just another vote, it's not just another election. This is an unprecedented time in politics where we have to show up for what we believe in."
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Election 2020: Bernie Sanders campaign hoping Iowa organization will bring victory