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Bernie vs Biden: two septuagenarians lead Democratic field ahead of Iowa caucuses

Democratic candidates Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (L) and former US Vice President Joe Biden (R) campaigning in Iowa.
Democratic candidates Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (L) and former US Vice President Joe Biden (R) campaigning in Iowa. © Jessica Le Masurier

He’s the oldest candidate in the White House race, but Bernie Sanders has managed, yet again, to energise young voters with polls showing him running neck and neck with former US vice president Joe Biden in the Iowa caucuses. But the first test of the US presidential race is known for throwing up surprises.

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As the first vote in the 2020 Democratic race to challenge US President Donald Trump kicks off in the Midwestern state of Iowa Monday, Sanders has emerged as a candidate on the rise, with the 78-year-old Vermont senator tied with Biden, 77, in several polls.

Biden and Sanders were tied at 25 percent as the first choice nominee, according to a CBS News poll conducted by YouGov released Sunday. 

Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, came in third with 21 percent while Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren ranked fourth with 16 percent.



The results largely match other polls conducted in the key state.

The two frontrunners represent two separate wings of the party: Sanders the progressive wing, and Biden the moderate establishment wing. 

Sanders had a double-digit lead with people under the age of 35 in some polls. Those voters formed the core base of his support in 2016 and they are still “feeling the Bern” this year.

The self-proclaimed socialist’s supporters are being rallied by social media to attend the caucuses, whereas older voters, who are more likely to favour Biden, are less likely to turn up.

Sanders also stands a good chance of winning the upcoming primary in New Hampshire, where, as the senator of a neighbouring state, the veteran politician is a local.

Biden, a moderate with decades of Washington experience, is under pressure to put up a strong performance in Iowa, as centrist Democrats fret about how to deal with the rise of Sanders. 

'Maybe we need a dangerous communist'

At a Sanders campaign rally Sunday, supporters listened enthusiastically as the candidate went through his policy priorities and explained what’s at stake in the 2020 elections. “This might be the election that is the most consequential in modern American history. What we are talking about is the future of American democracy,” he said.

Sanders promised he would defeat Trump and unite people together “around an agenda that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent.”

Josiah Sutton, a 22-year-old history student at Lincoln College, is helping the Sanders campaign in Iowa. He says a lot of young people in the service industry are backing the Vermont senator because he is addressing trade union issues. When asked for his response to critics who call Sanders a “dangerous communist,” Sutton replied, “Maybe we need a ‘dangerous communist’. We’ve been in a dangerous capitalist situation for too long.”

Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders campaigns at Lincoln College in Indianapolis, Iowa.
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders campaigns at Lincoln College in Indianapolis, Iowa. © Jessica Le Masurier

Tyler Birch, 26, a press operator from Columbus, Ohio, spends most of his days on the factory floor but he’s taken time out to come to Iowa and canvas for Sanders.

Breathless and passionate, he explained Sanders’s revolutionary appeal: “I believe that we need to build a working-class movement in America. I think we need to live up to the original precept that our country was set up on, which is a democracy for everybody by everybody not just special interests, lobbyists, big banks, pharma and the insurance companies.

“If that means he’s for the working people of the US, for unions, for people like me and my family, and immigrants - we need to go from the bottom up and that is how we all rise. Not a system that creates wealth for just the 1 percent, where most income goes to them and not to us, the real people who work here. We’re gonna take Iowa, we’re gonna take South Carolina, we’re gonna take the presidency,” said Birch.

A Bernie Sander's campaign field office in Des Moines, Iowa, February 3rd 2020.
A Bernie Sander's campaign field office in Des Moines, Iowa, February 3rd 2020. © Jessica Le Masurier

At a Sanders field office in Des Moines, a sign reading “IA loves Bernie” adorns the wall. Volunteers mill around exchanging canvassing techniques to convince voters to caucus for Sanders. 

Cidney Macmillan, a business analyst from Iowa who is campaigning for Bernie Sanders, February 2nd 2020.
Cidney Macmillan, a business analyst from Iowa who is campaigning for Bernie Sanders, February 2nd 2020. © Jessica Le Masurier

Cidney Macmillan, a 35-year-old business analyst from Iowa, is canvassing for Sanders. He’s been trying to convince people who are on the fence to come and support the candidate. Cidney supported Sanders in the last electoral cycle as well.

“This year more than others, there’s a lot of progressive people. In my opinion, Bernie brought that out. Progressives seem to like Bernie, Warren and [Andrew] Yang. I feel Bernie’s the right guy, he’s been on the right side of history for the last 30, 40 years. He’s been trying to break up the big corporations, trying to fight for nature. For me the most important thing is breaking up banks, corporations. There’s a lot of money in politics. A lot of that comes from big banks, oil companies, the finance sector, pharmaceuticals, they are able to lobby and get a lot of different things that help them out but don’t benefit 95 percent of the population.”

Macmillan thinks it will even be possible to convince Trump supporters to convert to Sanders as he is an ‘anti-establishment’ figure. 

Biden is ‘the only one who can bring both sides back together’

A crowd of about a thousand people gathered to hear Joe Biden at a middle school in Des Moines on Sunday. 

The atmosphere felt flat before Biden appeared but picked up once he got on stage and flashed his smile. Biden appeared somewhat frail, compared to the younger candidates in the race, and used notes as a prompt for his speech. 

Democratic candidate Joe Biden at a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa.
Democratic candidate Joe Biden at a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa. © Jessica Le Masurier

“The next president is going to inherit a country divided and a world in disarray,” Biden said, “There’s no time for on-the-job training.”

Marshall Orsini, an attorney from West Des Moines, told FRANCE 24 that he will caucus for Biden on Monday evening. “He said himself we need a president who can start from day one. I want a certain level of statesmanship in a president. I think he’ll be able to pull in both the disillusioned and disenfranchised and the other side as well, and I think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are going to have a hard time doing that. He’s got a better chance of beating Trump.”

The former vice president has a way of looking right into the eyes of audience members. He took time to greet all of those jostling to shake his hand, staying true to his reputation for having a personal touch.

James A. Benzoni, an immigration attorney who supports Joe Biden, at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, February 2nd 2020.
James A. Benzoni, an immigration attorney who supports Joe Biden, at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, February 2nd 2020. © Jessica Le Masurier, France 24

James A. Benzoni, an immigration attorney who stayed on after Biden’s speech to shake the candidate’s hand, explained why he is supporting him. “The main reason, besides his experience, is because we are so divided right now and we need to deal with the racial divide. The election of Barack Obama brought racial prejudice back to the surface and right now Biden is the only one who can bring both sides back together.” 

At the end of his rally, Biden told FRANCE 24, “I’m the best candidate because I know what we have to do. I can unite the country.” 

The majority of Democratic voters FRANCE 24 spoke with said that if Biden ultimately gets the nomination they will back him against Trump. 

But Rafaela Perez, a 20-year-old Warren supporter who travelled from Kansas to see her candidate, told FRANCE 24 that she does not think young people will support Biden. “He has some good points but I don’t really think he’s the Democrat of the day anymore," she explained.

'Please don't make me vote for Joe Biden' video on TikTok.
'Please don't make me vote for Joe Biden' video on TikTok. © Jessica Le Masurier


Perez then showed FRANCE 24 a video that has gone viral, which features a young man in a tie-dye T-shirt doing the "Running Man" dance and chanting, "Please don’t make me vote for Joe Biden." The popularity of the video reflects a sentiment felt by many young Democrats in Iowa and across the United States. 

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