We arrived at the Iowa Field House at 5:00PM, an hour and a half before the Bernie Sanders event was set to begin. It was billed as a combination rally and concert, featuring performances from Foster the People, Vampire Weekend, and appearances from actors and comedians. The two entry lines, one for University of Iowa students and another for the general public, already snaked from the door to streets a half-mile away.
It was immediately apparent that the attendees at the event were different from the middle-aged crowds we’d seen at the Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton rallies. Those in the general public line with us were mostly 20-somethings wearing tight dark jeans and converse sneakers. A man in a rotten-banana suit stood near us (think a normal banana suit, except with brown spots and a mask covering his face that made it look like the banana was screaming in agony). The nose-rings per-capita was higher than any other event we would attend in Iowa.
Once we entered the building, which had formerly been the University of Iowa student gym and was now a multipurpose event space, the enormity of the event overwhelmed us. We were one of the last groups to join to the 4,000-5,000 people already packed into the large room. A folk band was playing as we found our spot in the crowd. We stood toward the back of the room far from the concert stage, but near the podium that jutted into the sea of people where Sanders and others would speak.
After the band stopped playing there was a lull in the action and we took the opportunity to ask some of the people standing around us some questions. Laurel, an eighteen year-old student at Iowa State in Ames, said that she was planning on caucusing for Sanders. Social issues were most important to her, and she highlighted the legalization of marijuana and campaign finance reform. She noted that she was a Democratic Socialist who, after being raised by a single mother, recognized the importance of social programs.
Another attendee, a 26 year-old from Fairfield, Iowa, said his main reason for supporting Sanders was that “he wasn’t Hillary,” and added he was also considering supporting Rand Paul. He had voted for libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson in 2012. (He initially said he had voted for him in 2014, before talking to his friend and realizing that it was in fact 2012. In one of the stranger moments of the night, he admitted he made the error because he thought that it was currently 2018).
The Lucas Brothers, a comedy duo who served as the emcees for the evening, kicked off the main event at about 7:00PM. They asked the crowd if they were excited for Foster the People and Vampire Weekend, and the crowd cheered in response. But these reactions paled in comparison to the thunderous roar the emcees elicited when they asked who was there for Bernie Sanders – it was clear he was the main attraction. When one brother asked why the other was supporting Sanders, he replied that “he’s dope, he’s the dopest man I know.”
They introduced the next act, a folk band comprised of three women. They played a song about immigration that criticized the phrase “take our country back,” a Republican refrain from the 2012 election. The chorus asked, “When they say they want their America back, what the fuck does that mean?” Their next song sought to explain Democratic Socialism (detailed in another recent column), with the main message that most Americans were Democrat Socialists since they supported social security and Medicare. They closed with a cover of the popular 1950s song “Mr. Sandman,” replacing the original chorus with “Mr. Sanders, bring us a dream” and featuring lyrics such as “please be pro-women, pro-choice, pro-labor, and make our healthcare coverage single-payer.”
Next up was Josh Hutcherson – the actor famous for playing Peeta in The Hunger Games movie series – who spoke about the importance of a living wage and lowering college costs. Some members of the crowd held up the three-finger District 12 salute as he walked up to the podium.
After a few more performances, philosopher and activist Cornell West made a surprise appearance, declaring to the crowd that “justice is what love looks like in public” and calling on the audience to “get on the love train.” Watching him introduce Vampire Weekend at a Bernie Sanders rally was one of the odd moments in American politics that only an event like the Iowa Caucuses produce.
Sanders was the main event, appearing at the podium after all the performers to a booming applause. He discussed the progressive crowd-pleasers – concentration of wealth among the “billionaire class,” campaign finance, climate change, criminal justice reform. When he began talking about racial inequity in the enforcement of marijuana laws, he said, “It turns out that the black community and the white community do marijuana at about the same rates,” prompting the crowd to cheer as many yelled “Yeah we do!” To laughter, he responded, “That wasn’t exactly my point.”
He closed his speech by urging attendees to caucus. “If we turn out, we will win, if we don’t turn out, we will lose.” This was the true purpose of the event, which had featured speakers who encouraged the crowd to bring friends along with them to vote and videos between performances that explained the caucus process. The music and movie stars telling people to caucus reminded me of President Obama’s efforts to get young people to sign up for Obamacare by going on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and Zach Galifianakis’s “Between Two Ferns.” While newspaper columns are filled with policy analysis, politics is mostly just getting people to show up.
As if we already hadn’t seen enough political oddity, the event concluded with Sanders joining Vampire Weekend on stage for a final song – Bernie, the band, and the audience all sang “This Land is My Land” in perfect Democratic Socialist unity.