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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — For Bernie Sanders, victory in Iowa's kickoff presidential caucuses hinges on a simple proposition: that his message of political revolution will inspire people who typically stay home on that deep-winter night.
Of course, that's easier said than done.
Getting new people out to these party organizing events, which usually draw small numbers, remains the holy grail of Iowa politics. In 2008, Barack Obama helped boost attendance to an unmatched 240,000 Democrats and won on his way to the presidency. But these meetings take hours on a weeknight and Iowa in February tends to be frigid.
"We have to reach out to first-time caucus goers or caucus goers who haven't caucused in a long time," said Pete D'Alessandro, who is running the Iowa operation for the Vermont senator and Democratic contender. "We have to expand the definition of what the caucus goer is." He wouldn't say if the campaign thinks Sanders actually needs to win the caucuses or just have a strong showing against Hillary Clinton to keep him strong for contests that follow.
Sanders, who is back in Iowa this weekend, has been greeted rapturously on previous trips through the state, pumping up thousands of people at rallies with soaring rhetoric. But while his campaign message — with pledges of paid family leave, free public university and single-payer health care — has been received with enthusiasm, Sanders lags behind Clinton in state polls.
Jeff Link, who advised Obama in Iowa in 2008 and 2012, cautioned that motivating new people is extremely hard. "It's never really been done in a real way except for 2008," he said.
Undaunted, a passionate force of paid and volunteer staffers is working all out for Sanders for caucus night Feb. 1. His campaign has brought in millions in contributions, enough to make him competitive when it comes to Iowa staffing. Currently, he has 91 paid people on the ground, about 70 of them organizers, and 21 offices across the state.
Clinton has 24 offices, at least 78 organizers deployed and the benefit of a much earlier start this year. The former secretary of state also has far more institutional support, with most of the state's top elected Democrats and lawmakers on board, while Sanders has no backing from high-ranking elected officials.
All of this matters in Iowa because the caucuses are very different from primaries in other states. The Democratic caucuses require participants to form groups of candidate supporters and gather in schools, church basements and homes throughout Iowa. Supporters of candidates who receive less than 15 percent support in an individual precinct disperse, giving other supporters a chance to argue for their support. Republican caucuses use a more straightforward process, though the same attendance rules apply.
Recent organizing activities with Sanders' supporters show that this is simply very slow work.
For example, Christina Davelaar, 39, of West Des Moines, dialed about 100 numbers during a phone-banking session, spoke to five people and only found one definite Sanders supporter. She said she had "mixed feelings" about the experience, though she plans to volunteer again soon.
Members of National Nurses United, which endorsed Sanders, fanned out in Des Moines on a bright November morning to knock on doors. The group had many non-Iowa residents, and brief training revealed some of the challenges of schooling out-of-towners quickly — many were unfamiliar with how caucuses actually work.
In South Des Moines, Mona Cetnar of Chicago and Kristine Dixon, of Ankeny, Iowa, quickly learned how many doors you have to knock just to find a person — let alone a Sanders supporter. After an hour, the duo in red T-shirts had spoken to about a half a dozen people, with a few expressing interest in Sanders, but no one ready to sign up to caucus.
Cetnar and Dixon tried to talk with people about health care and education as they pitched for Sanders. "I want to see a brighter future," Cetnar said. But they encountered oddities along the way. One man answered his door with no shirt on and bluntly said: "I'm willing to vote, but not for Bernie."
On the Republican side, another candidate probably needs to motivate new people to come out. Front-runner Donald Trump has been drawing huge crowds, often filled with people who say they have not participated in past caucuses. The campaign has been encouraging people to sign up and has been drawing enthusiastic volunteers, but officials have been reluctant to share details on how the organizing is going.
Pollster Ann Selzer, who conducts the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll, noted one similarity between the contest today and in 2007. In Selzer's October poll, Clinton was leading the field, as she was then. But Selzer also noted that Obama held a double-digit lead with independents eight years ago and Sanders holds an even larger lead with that group this time.
"On paper you would say Sanders is in a better place" than Obama, the eventual Iowa winner, in 2007, Selzer said. But the question, she said, is whether he has the organization to turn that potential into caucus votes.
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