Big Man On Campus: How Bernie Sanders Is Trying To Lock Down The College Vote in Iowa

If you’re looking for an American city that embodies the myriad successes and shortcomings of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, you could do worse than Cedar Falls, Iowa. Located in the northeastern quadrant of the state, the demographics of Cedar Falls suggest that it is a city where the Sanders campaign should flourish. Like Sanders supporters in relation their Clintonian counterparts, Cedar Falls is quite white and very young, demographic details owing equally to the city’s location—Iowa is the 6th least diverse state in nation—and the fact that it is home to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). Known for much of the 20th century as the Iowa State Teachers College, UNI’s identity is still very much formed through its education program and, as a result, a good chunk of the college’s student body projects the sort of staid midwestern progressivism that would make Tom Harkin proud. However, with a racial and ethnic makeup that mirrors the region in which it’s situated, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that UNI finds itself in the bottom decile of all US universities when it comes to diversity, although one would be forgiven for being mildly shocked that Cedar Falls is actually less diverse than the state of Iowa itself.

This past weekend, I stopped in Cedar Falls for to attend a Democratic Debate watch party that was being put on by UNI Students for Bernie Sanders 2016, the school’s home for those who are Feeling The Bern. When I walked through the unlocked front door of the barely off-campus house where the party was taking place, I was greeted by a crowd of about a dozen or so students. Sitting on a sea of beanbag chairs and a couple second hand sofas, the students were watching the debate and offering up snide commentary while Martin O’ Malley was trying to give his opening statement, questioning why the former Maryland governor was still in the race and saying he looked like a “Presidential Ken Doll”.


Bernie gesticulating, as Bernie is wont to do, while Hillary listens during the Democratic Debate in Iowa this past weekend (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Soon thereafter, I was greeted by Martin Wise, the 23 year old President of UNI Students for Bernie Sanders 2016, who pulled me aside into the dining room so that we could discuss the political climate on campus and how he thought his organization was faring.

“We really haven’t had too much opposition”, Wise told me when we started talking. “It’s actually been a pretty straightforward and mellow campaign on campus. I really couldn’t have asked for shallower, nicer waters.”

According to Wise, his group got a jumpstart on organizing over the summer and garnered a lot of early support from students. Despite the fact Clinton—unlike Sanders—has actually spoken at the University of Northern Iowa, it is Sanders who is getting the bulk of the buzz around campus, both through the group, which Wise says has signed up at least 700 members in a school with just over 13,000 students, and through the university’s student paper, The Northern Iowan. There is a pro-Hillary student group at UNI—Panthers For Hillary—but I was unable to find any events sponsored by them or letters to the editor in the paper in support of the former Secretary of State. It is probable that there are potential Hillary voters on campus, but if they’re there, they’re not being too vocal about it.

As far as Republican candidate support at UNI is concerned, it looks like it’s Rand or Bust. “I feel like on campus it’s begun to turn into a Progressive Democrat sect and a Libertarian sect, rather than Democrats versus Republicans.” Wise said when I asked him about it. “It just seems like college students in general believe in the advancement of social options…I would say that on the business side of things, you would find a lot of students who believe in capitalism, who believe in trickle-down, but they’re still kind of on the fence about the social options because they grew up watching gay rights advance. They don’t identify with the Republican Party wholeheartedly on issues like that.”

After talking for a little while, a young woman named Shelby sat down at the table and started describing the reasons why she had chosen to support Sanders. Shelby, who was both the Vice President of UNI Students for Bernie Sanders 2016 and, not so coincidentally, Martin Wise’s girlfriend, said that it was growing up under rough economic circumstances that drew her to Bernie. “One of the biggest reasons I’m for Bernie is the minimum wage and family values, because my mom was a single mother with 3 kids and she was making maybe 10,000…12,000 dollars a year and I have no clue how she raised us…it’s insane when I think about it. No woman should be put through that.” Shelby said, adding that she also supported Sanders because she’s a Spanish major who is passionate about immigration reform, but neglecting to go into specifics regarding policy or Bernie’s somewhat checkered voting record on the issue.

Pretty shortly after that, the discussion switched to Sanders’s recent support for ending the federal ban on marijuana and Truman, a Cedar Falls native who was back in town getting a respite from his more conservative environs at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, decided to chime in. “Why do I like Bernie?” Truman asked himself. “He tells the truth. My sister’s going to start college soon, so free tuition would be nice. Uh, I believe in medicinal marijuana…my grandpa uses it.” Truman isn’t alone in Cedar Falls in viewing college affordability and marijuana legalization as key issues. According to Wise, Sanders’s proposal for universal free college is often what he has his volunteers lead with when talking to prospective voters, although he would much rather focus on Citizens United and getting corporate interests out of politics.


A flyer for a punk show in Cedar Falls raising money and awareness for Bernie’s campaign. I mean, what could be more college than a band called “Joe Meteorite & The Space Peanuts”?

As for foreign affairs and the growth of the surveillance state, they seem to be more or less irrelevant to the student body. “It doesn’t come up.” Wise told me when queried as to whether or not students ask about Sanders’s positions on issues like military involvement in the Middle East, drone strikes or NSA wiretaps. “I don’t have students come up and talk to me about these issues—about foreign policy—they don’t really bring it up at all…I’ll have a couple of my tablers and I’ll usually try to prep them, like, try and give them cheat sheets and stuff like that, and I don’t really equip them that well for that because we just don’t get those questions, ever.” By the same token, Wise said it has been hard to get the predominantly white student body to care about the Black Lives Matter movement. “We are very much in a bubble here,” Wise told me, “so that side of things gets brought up very rarely and it’s hard to get students fired up about that because they don’t see it.”

The University of Northern Iowa may well be a bubble, but it’s a bubble with a wildly disproportionate influence on who becomes the Democratic and Republican nominees for President. For some, like President Obama back in 2008, a victory in Iowa can prove a springboard to The White House. For others, like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum in 2008 and 2012, it winds up being the high water mark in a political career that leads them to the kiddie table debate in this year’s election. As Hillary knows all too well, it’s a tough row to hoe to win the Democratic nomination after losing Iowa. She knows it can be done, as her husband was the last Democrat to do so 24 years ago, but it’s a pretty safe bet to say she doesn’t want to have to find out. Whether or not she is forced to will depend in large measure upon how many college age Iowans like the ones met get behind Bernie and how many of them come out to caucus.

Categories: 2016 Election, US Politics

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