SIOUX CITY, Iowa – Most presidential candidates try to manage expectations in the final stretch of a campaign knowing a surprise win is always better than an expected one. Not Bernie Sanders.
Ever the insurgent, Sanders is spending his final days on the trail in Iowa predicting a win here and beyond. He has boasted of his “excellent" chances in the first-in-the-nation caucuses on Monday and already predicted a win in delegate-rich California in March. The Vermont senator is openly delighting on the stump as he is increasingly being talked about as the candidate to beat, at least for now.
"You can tell how good I feel by how nervous the establishment is getting,” Sanders told cheering supporters at a downtown auditorium in Sioux City, on Iowa's border with Nebraska, on Sunday. “We're their worst nightmare.”
Sanders' confidence isn't necessarily backed up by polling — which shows the same jumble of Democrats at the top in Iowa that have been there for months. But the Vermont senator has other reasons to hype his standing ahead of the first votes. His path to the nomination hinges on high turnout — particularly among young and new caucusgoers. That high turnout may depend on convincing those people that he's got a better chance of toppling the establishment his second time seeking the presidency.
“It's smarter politics always to moderate expectations, but I think that Sanders is playing a different game because his core support is going to be there for him no matter what," said Zac Petkanas, a veteran of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential bid.
Sanders believes that, too.
“If we win here in Iowa — and with your help, we have an excellent chance to,” he said in Sioux City. “We’re going to win in New Hampshire, and if we win in New Hampshire, we’re going to win in Nevada, and we’re going to do damn well in South Carolina, and we’re going to win California."
Predicting victory — or close to it — in the Democratic primary's four leadoff states and the largest state voting on March 3's “Super Tuesday,” when more than 1,500 delegates to the party's convention will be up for grabs, does come with risks.
Sanders isn't the surprise hit he was in 2016, when he shook up the Democratic Party establishment and consolidated Democrats opposed to Clinton. Should he fall short of his own very high bar, several competitors are ready to pounce, offering voters looking for a political insurgent another option.
But such predictions also generate excitement that may secure the elevated turnout Sanders needs. And they may potentially be a move to insulate himself if he fails to meet them — offering the ready-made excuse that last-minute attacks from the Democratic and corporate establishment succeeded in blunting his momentum to take on President Donald Trump in the general election.
“It happened four years ago. It could happen again,” said Jonathan Findlay, a 29-year-old arborist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who is volunteering for Sanders’ campaign and worries that Democratic elders may tilt the scales away from the senator, like he says they did in 2016. “You would hope that the ‘establishment’ would just get behind whatever candidates are popular. They’re trying to play the long game and trying to figure out who can beat Trump.”
Still, many Democrats are irritated by Sanders' brimming confidence and see him as unable to beat Trump should he make it to November's general election.
“For some, it's the hubris. For some, it's just the fact that he grates on them because he's just constantly angry,” said Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Sanders rival Joe Biden who is now on the board of directors of the software firm TransparentBusiness. “In my opinion, he redefines the word curmudgeon.”
Moderate Democrats have long argued that Sanders' liberal views, which include universal, government-funded health care under a “Medicare for All” program and tuition-free public college, are too extreme.
On Wednesday, a Democratic-aligned super PAC began airing a negative ad against Sanders in Iowa. Produced by the political arm of Democratic Majority for Israel, it features interviews with voters who describe the 78-year-old Sanders as too liberal to beat Trump and even a possible health liability after his heart attack in October.
Sanders responded in an online video, “Our opponents have endless amounts of money, but we have the people. And our grassroots movement will prevail.”
He'll need to back that up Monday, and Misty Rebik, Sanders' Iowa state director, said the campaign is concentrating on first-time caucusgoers, a gamble that means devoting lots of resources to people when “there's no record of them showing up.”
Sanders' campaign has organized on more than 20 university and community college campuses across the state, including by employing paid, student interns who canvass their classmates. It also stepped up its outreach to Hispanic Iowans, hoping to increase the fewer than 3,000 who caucused in 2016.
“Our strategy has been risky,” Rebik said. “In order to defeat Donald Trump, we have to expand the electorate, and we've been willing to take that risk.”
The caucus process requires Iowans to pledge their support for their chosen candidate and sometimes stay for hours through multiple rounds of voting. Sanders' campaign says that it will have more than one trained precinct captain at all of the 1,700-plus caucus precincts statewide, and that it is training supporters to perform multiple tasks just in case needs change throughout caucus night.
That effort is not unique to Sanders. Zach Wahls, an Iowa state senator whose district includes parts of Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, has endorsed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and said her campaign has enlisted caucus veterans while employing a staff that understands caucus math and can react to changes across the state in real time while voting is unfolding.
Wahls said he sees Warren's edge as the “strong crossover appeal” — an ability to reach both regular caucusgoers and newcomers.
Even as he goads corporate interests and the establishment, Sanders stresses that his agenda is no longer radical and has become a major part of the Democratic Party's mainstream. With the senator now tethered to Washington for Trump's impeachment trial, it has fallen to top supporters, including firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to make similar cases.
“I don’t think he’s divisive,” Ocasio-Cortez said of Sanders. “I think he distinguishes himself and that makes people nervous.”
For Stephen Hill, who attended a Sanders rally in Marshalltown, Iowa, a dose of radicalism might be the best way to energize Sanders supporters.
“We need drastic measures," said Hill, a 52-year-old retired soldier. “We’ve got to be mean. We can be intellectual but still be aggressive. I’m there. So is Bernie.”
Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”