In her first-ever visit to Iowa this weekend, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addressed a crowd of more than 2,200 at a campaign event in Coralville on Saturday for Bernie Sanders.
To help explain why she has endorsed the Vermont Senator in the presidential primary, she relied on a retelling of her own, now-familiar biography: how she began as a waitress at a taco joint in downtown Manhattan; how she kept canvassing cards and a change of clothes in a Trader Joe’s bag tucked behind the bar so she could go directly to house parties after her shift; how she, against all odds, is now one of the most prominent members of the U.S. House.
It’s a riff that resonates with the largely liberal crowd—and offers to boost to Sander’s campaign: Ocasio-Cortez’s life experience and unimpeachable credibility as a blue-collar woman of color burnishes Sanders’s effort to define himself in a crowded Democratic field as the most authentic candidate for America’s working class. As his opponents have shifted left, embracing Medicare for All and offering sweepingly progressive policy agendas, Sanders’s unflinchingly liberal voting record, which he cites regularly, appears less exceptional than it once did. For many in Iowa, Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Sanders reads as a kind of shorthand: Sanders is the candidate true liberals can trust.
“She’s one of us. She was one of us very recently, and now she’s working with him,” said Brogan Messer, a 26-year-old North Liberty resident who is a kitchen designer in Iowa City, of Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement and subsequent visit to Iowa. “In my mind, it kind of connects, like, yeah, he is for us, so that definitely helped tonight for her to be here.”
“I work at Wal-Mart,” said Morgan Baethke, 59, of Indianola, when I asked him at a Des Moines event why he was supporting Sanders. He said that other candidates, including Vice President Biden, confuse “what is the working class and the working poor. There are people in the American economy that just aren’t making it,” he said. “[It’s] very much what Sen. Sanders says, working 40 hours a week and working in poverty. I don’t think a partial solution … is ever going to be able to fill those needs.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s first-ever foray to the first-to-caucus state was packaged as part of a publicity tour about climate change and the Green New Deal. But her days were packed with fist-pumping for the Sanders campaign, and issues like the minimum wage came up nearly as often as rising temperatures. When news broke about New York Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s possible entry into the race, Sanders beseeched an audience to send him and other billionaires a message: “Sorry, you’re not gonna buy this election.”
On Friday night, more than 2,400 voters showed up to see Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez speak at a Council Bluffs event that the campaign later touted as the largest in the state among any of the Democratic presidential candidates. Thousands more showed up at two more public events on Saturday. Interest in Ocasio-Cortez was so high that at one event, more than 300 people volunteered to help and the campaign, not knowing what to do with so many, had to turn some of them down.
But if Iowa voters are known for showing up at political rallies in sub-freezing temps, they are also famous for their indecision. In conversations with TIME at Sanders events Saturday, many of his admirers said they were still weighing their options. Some were considering caucusing for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sanders’ personal friend and biggest progressive rival, while others said they liked South Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose more moderate message of hopeful pragmatism has recently boosted him in the polls. Messer, the young woman from North Liberty, told me that while she will “most likely” support Sanders, she also likes Warren and Buttigieg and is considering which she thinks is most electable.
Those who are already committed to caucus for Sanders say the reason is that they trust his liberal bonafides. Several supporters told me they worried that Warren had once been a registered Republican. Others drew an unfavorable distinction between Warren’s plodding, policy-driven approach to systemic change with Sanders’ more revolutionary one. Several pointed to Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Sanders as reassuring.
But not all Iowans were applauding Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez’s sweep through the state. A two-hour drive from where Sanders held his first rally with Ocasio-Cortez on Friday night, the Iowa Republican party held its annual Lincoln-Reagan dinner. Ocasio-Cortez, who has been the subject of racist tweets from the President, was mentioned several times and loudly booed by the audience. As Sen. Lindsey Graham, the featured speaker, put it: “The theme for the night is socialism sucks, eat more pork, and drink more ethanol.”
Asked earlier in the week whether Sanders’s campaign had any concerns about how Ocasio-Cortez—the face of the progressive movement—would be received in a purple state, Faiz Shakir, the campaign chair for Sanders, said there were no hesitations. “If you think about what Bernie Sanders needs to win, we have to have a lot of young people get involved. I think she is going to enthuse a lot of young people to get involved,” he told TIME. “I think she will also help us expand the electorate.”
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez together represent both the older, liberal guard and a social-media-fueled future progressive movement. “I don’t see any drawback,” Shakir said. “I only see upside to bring her to Iowa and building enthusiasm for this campaign.”
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