IOWA CITY — Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) headlined three rallies in three days in the early voting state of Iowa this week, turning out nearly 5,000 of his supporters in a display of his campaign’s organizational strength and support.
Sanders spent a significant amount of time at all three of his Iowa campaign rallies discussing rural agricultural issues, something he did not do at his kickoff rallies in New York or Illinois last week. In particular, the Vermont senator spoke at length in Iowa about connecting the struggles of the independent family farmer to the struggles of workers and students for economic, environmental and racial justice and access to health care.
“We have seen in recent years schools, churches and community centers shut down,” he said at his rally in Council Bluffs. “All across rural America, we have seen family farmers by the thousands go out of business as the prices that they receive for their products decline rapidly and large agribusiness corporations and factory farming take over agriculture. We have seen rural hospitals and nursing homes shut down and not enough doctors to provide for quality health care that rural America deserves.”
Between 1,000 and 2,000 people attended each of Sanders’s three campaign rallies that took place from March 7-9, in Council Bluffs, Iowa City and Des Moines.
“My only regret is we didn’t get a larger room,” Sanders said to hundreds of students and workers in Iowa City after taking the stage. At all three rallies he emphasized rural issues, offering variations on this argument that he made in Des Moines: “We need policies for rural America that represent the needs of working people and farmers, not agribusiness and multinational corporations.”
Sanders’s stump speeches in Iowa differed sharply from the ones he gave at his campaign kickoff rallies a week earlier in Brooklyn and Chicago.
In addition to discussing rural agricultural issues much more in Iowa than he had previously, Sanders also spent significantly more time comparing and contrasting the state of his campaign and the political environment now to four years ago.
Sanders said he started the race in Iowa back in 2015 with only 3 percent support in the polls, but tied former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 caucus a year later with almost 50 percent.
Since then, according to Sanders, Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage and free college tuition have all become popular with a majority of Americans. Sanders has also curtailed the influence of superdelegates, shaking up the Democratic Party from within. He also took credit for leading efforts to end US support for the war in Yemen and forcing big corporations to raise their minimum wage.
During his Iowa rallies, Bernie railed against big banks for crashing the economy, against insurance and pharmaceutical companies for denying patient care, and against multinational corporations like Amazon and Walmart for not paying a livable wage. He also attacked seed companies like Monsanto and giant meat packers like Tyson and Cargill for driving mom and pop grocers, auctioneers, veterinarians, butchers and other farm-economy jobs out of business.
David Yepsen, the host of Iowa Press, told Truthout that “the Iowa caucuses force candidates to pay attention to rural issues” like water pollution (Iowa has some of the most polluted drinking water in the country), but that in reality many of these same issues also affect people “in underserved urban areas.”
Speaking in Iowa City, Sanders underscored these urban-rural connections: “When we talk about infrastructure and clean water, we’re talking about strengthening clean water laws so that corporate polluters stop poisoning the drinking water that communities across the country rely on, whether in Iowa or in Flint, Michigan.”
In his discussion of farming and agriculture, Sanders decried the power of a few corporate agribusiness firms over the farming industry, saying that as president he would appoint an attorney general who would enforce anti-trust laws.
“With the federal government not enforcing antitrust laws, we have seen mergers like Bayer and Monsanto approved, giving the two largest conglomerates 78 percent of the corn seed market,” Sanders said in Des Moines.
“While this deal could end up further jacking up seed prices for Iowa corn farmers, the CEO of Monsanto was rewarded for engineering that deal a golden parachute worth up to $32 million. People should not be rewarded for driving family farmers off the land.”
Ben Lilliston, the director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, Minnesota, said Sanders’ policy proposals are a good start but do not go far enough.
“It’s great to read about a candidate calling out factory farms, but antitrust enforcement is only part of the solution,” Lilliston told Truthout. “What’s missing from his speech is what a new vision for rural America would look like and how you might get there.
“We would really like to see a vision for re-orienting trade and farm policy toward farmers getting a fair price and away from a race to the bottom,” Lilliston added. “The ‘below cost’ price system is leading to consolidated land and market ownership. Minimum wage for workers could be tied to fair prices for farmers.”
Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour is a high priority for Bernie, based on how much he talks about it, and he always adds a line after calling for a wage increase about making it easier to join a union.
“Unions are the means by which workers have dignity on the job,” Sanders said in Des Moines. “We’re going to make it easier for workers to join unions, not harder.”
Truthout caught up with Senator Sanders immediately following his speech in Iowa City as he stood amid a crowd of his local volunteers and asked how he planned to get 60 votes in the U.S. Senate for his signature piece of labor legislation, the Workplace Democracy Act.
“Right now, all the wealth and the power rest in the hands of the few,” he told Truthout. “The only way we wrest that power away from them is when people stand up and fight back. That’s it. We’re all in this together. I can’t do it alone…. The best president in the history of the world cannot do it alone.”
Again linking the fight of workers to the fight of farmers, he added, “In this state, I want to do my best to focus on the rural areas of this state. I know there’s a lot of work that has to be done.”
The Iowa caucus is the first-in-the-nation nominating contest and serves as a bellwether of national support for presidential candidates during the primary season. Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucus in 2008, catapulting his candidacy all the way to the White House. Obama carried Iowa again in 2012, and Donald Trump won the Hawkeye State in the 2016 general election.
Sanders has been regularly visiting the Hawkeye state since 2014, building intimate relationships with community organizations, party activists and everyday people each time. He tied with Hillary Clinton here in 2016 and has years of built-in name recognition and a list of tens of thousands of dedicated supporters. Nevertheless it’s not yet clear whether this longtime investment of time and energy will translate into a political win in Iowa.
Due to Iowa voters’ interest in populist campaigns, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is another candidate who could surge in Iowa over the next few months, just like Sanders and Obama both did in the past. She kept her name in the news recently by proposing to break up giant tech firms like Amazon and Facebook. Hundreds of people have attended her events in Iowa towns like Dubuque and Decorah.
Former vice president Joe Biden is also expected to announce that he is running for president and a Des Moines Register poll currently shows Biden ahead of Sanders among Iowa voters, with 27 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers listing Biden as their top choice, as opposed to 25 percent listing Sanders.
Conversations with Iowa residents reveal a wait-and-see attitude from many local Democratic voters.
“I’m happy to see any and all of [the candidates] come into Iowa and be a part of the process,” Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA 2nd District) told Truthout during a meet-and-greet at the Dodge Street Coffeehouse the day after Sanders’s rally in Iowa City.
Meanwhile, Gerene Denning, a retired public health researcher at the University of Iowa, told Truthout, “I’m giving money to both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.” Denning caucused for Sanders in 2016 but says she also wants to see a progressive woman in office.
“I’m not going to choose yet, I’m going to support both of them,” she said. “Now is not the time to be cautious.”