By Zeke J Miller / Carroll, Iowa
January 20, 2016

Bernie Sanders’ events are known for his denunciations against Wall Street fat cats, raging against the cost of high education, and a call for a mass political movement. But at a lunchtime town hall in Carroll, Iowa, the avowed revolutionary opened with something far more prosaic: politics.

Addressing the crowd of about 150 in this northwest Iowa city, Sanders temporarily set aside his campaign stump speech to address what has become the central challenge of his campaign: whether he can actually win.

In almost Trumpian fashion, Sanders has taken to highlighting his poll numbers, donors, and crowd sizes in hopes of proving his legitimacy to voters who may agree with his message, but doubt his chances against Republicans this fall.

“The last two national polls that were out have me in once case beating Donald Trump by 13 points, Hillary Clinton was beating him by 7 points,” Sanders said. “Another poll that came out just the other day had me beating Donald by 15 points, Hillary Clinton beating him by 10 points.”

“People say, ‘what we’re hearing, Bernie, is that people like your ideas but they think you can’t win—you’re a nice guy, but you can’t beat the Republicans,’” Sanders added. “That’s wrong.”

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The Clinton campaign is driving the unelectability argument with television ads in Iowa in New Hampshire, which call GOP candidates “dangerous,” before casting Clinton as the only Democrat capable of winning. “To stop them, stand with her,” it closes.

American Crossroads, the super PAC founded by former George W. Bush aide Karl Rove, is seeking to boost Sanders in Iowa, believing he would be an easier opponent in the fall.

Sanders, who is in a neck-and-neck race with Clinton in Iowa, sounded optimistic about his chances in Iowa, and more so in New Hampshire where he has a clear lead, suggesting that a win in both would set him on the course to the nomination.

Pointing to Democratic losses in the last two midterm elections, Sanders argued that the party needs to turn out more of its base to win and he’s best positioned to do that.

“In 2008, Barack Obama ran one of the great campaigns in the history of this country—he rewrote the caucus rulebook right here in Iowa—unbelievable,” Sanders said. “I’m not saying that we can replicate that, but I think any objective look in our campaign and the energy and the excitement that it is generating with young people and with working people and compare that to Secretary Clinton’s campaign, will come to the conclusion that if our goal is to have a large voter turnout, we are the campaign that can do that, meaning not only do we retain the White House, with a large voter turnout we can recapture the Senate, do better in the House, and win governors chairs all over the country.”

Jean Guy, 55, a high school teacher in Carroll, and a precinct chair for Hillary Clinton attended Sanders’ event during her lunch break to assess the competition. “We love Bernie. We just don’t think he’s pragmatic,” she said, adding her only philosophical difference was on free higher education. “On single payer, we’ve tried it before. If he can get it done, great, but it seems unrealistic.”

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Kris Karr, of Fort Dodge, who attended Sanders’ earlier town hall in his hometown, said he found Sanders’ argument compelling. A 54-year-old independent voter and first time caucus-goer, Karr brought his son and a friend to see Sanders, and said Republican efforts to boost Sanders show they, like Hillary Clinton, are “misguided” about Sanders.

“I think their belief is that if Sanders wins the caucus, that’s an easier person to go up against in the general, and I think they’re wrong,” he said. “I think he is the guy that they’re going to have the most difficult time with.

Karr said he initially looked at Trump, but found Sanders’ grasp of the issues to be superior.

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