Behind the Scenes With Bernie in Iowa

By Shane Ryan, Salon - September 20, 2015

Judging by the low murmurs and restless bodies witnessed in the seconds before the senator from Vermont reached his next applause line, this sentiment did indeed leave the patrons of the Wing Ding Dinner a bit unsettled. The Iowa Democrats inside the Surf Ballroom—a sweaty music hall where ceiling fans spun to no effect at the top of a barrel roof, and where Buddy Holly played his final show before he chartered the private plane that killed him in 1959—had just finished cheering their heads off for Hillary Clinton’s platitudes, and now regarded the man onstage with a mixture of confusion and annoyance. The warning didn’t suit the festive mood. Hillary had satisfied their need for a savior, and now this relentless 73-year-old, hunched forward and gripping both sides of the podium as he bellowed in a strong Brooklyn accent, was insisting that the situation in America might require more than manufactured optimism—it might require actual political revolution. In fact, the Wing Ding audience represented Sanders’ first lukewarm crowd in some time. Since announcing his candidacy in an email to supporters in late April—a candidacy that was first dismissed as a fringe protest movement, eventually seen as a minor force that might push Hillary to the left, and is now being recognized as a legitimate threat to the front-runner—Sanders has gathered momentum at a rate that is either impressive or alarming, depending on your perspective. His events have drawn the primary season’s largest turnouts, and he’s banked donations from more Americans—400,000 and counting—than any other candidate. Just days before coming to Iowa, a poll showed him leading Clinton in the critical New Hampshire race for the first time, and less than a month later, he’d take his first lead in Iowa. Meanwhile, national polls indicate that he’s cut Clinton’s national lead in half since June—a trajectory that looks very similar to Barack Obama’s rise in 2008.

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