While the latest poll before the pivotal Iowa caucus on Monday shows Bernie Sanders holding a slight edge over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, observers argue that the campaign's clear momentum and success in bringing a bold populist agenda to the mainstream already signifies a substantial 'win' for the once-longshot candidate.
What's more, Sanders' advantage was secured by a substantial 62 to 35 percent lead among first-time attendees, underscoring the deep anti-establishment and grassroots support that his campaign has generated.
"Iowa isn’t about who wins the most delegates; it is about who gains momentum and legitimacy. What Sanders has already won is very real." —Robert Borosage, Campaign for America's FuturePeter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll, said the size of the turnout for the Iowa caucus, which begins at 7 PM CST, will likely be the key factor. "High turnouts with lots of new caucus participants," Brown said, "likely would mean a good night for Sen. Bernie Sanders."
The surge of populist support for the "outsider" candidate also continues to break fundraising records.
On Sunday, the Sanders campaign announced that more than 770,000 individuals submitted donations in January alone, pushing the total number of donations past the 3.25 million mark, which is a record for any White House candidate on the eve of the primaries.
The campaign raised over $20 million in January with an average contribution of just $27 each, which the campaign describes as "another powerful demonstration of Sanders’ growing grassroots backing."
"As Secretary Clinton holds high-dollar fundraisers with the nation’s financial elite, our supporters have stepped up in a way that allows Bernie to spend the critical days before the caucuses talking to Iowans about his plans to fix a rigged economy and end a corrupt system of campaign finance," Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, said, pointing to Clinton's attendance at a Wall Street-sponsored fundraising event last week.
"Working Americans chipping in a few dollars each month are not only challenging but beating the greatest fundraising machine ever assembled," Weaver added, noting that the swell of small donations has the campaign "on pace to beat Secretary Clinton’s goal of $50 million in the first quarter of 2016."
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In Iowa, the Sanders' campaign has employed a number of "unexpected moves," as The Nation's John Nichols notes, that have helped secure support among the state's rural voters, including running advertisements months ahead of the caucus in rural weekly and daily newspapers.
"As Secretary Clinton holds high-dollar fundraisers with the nation’s financial elite, our supporters have stepped up in a way that allows Bernie to spend the critical days before the caucuses talking to Iowans about his plans to fix a rigged economy and end a corrupt system of campaign finance." —Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager
The campaign has also brought back the 'barnstorm,' drawing an estimated 63,000 people in Iowa—and more than 507,000 nation-wide—to mass rallies and town meetings since the campaign began last April.
"We are running a simple, straightforward grassroots campaign. We are discussing the major issues facing our country and hearing what Iowans have to say," the candidate told a crowd of 1,300 Friday evening in Dubuque, Iowa. "We sense growing momentum here in Iowa and we think we have a great opportunity to win."
When compared to the February 2015 NBC News/Marist poll which found Sanders losing to Clinton in Iowa 7 to 68 percent, Sanders has come a long way. And regardless of whether he wins the most delegates on Monday or not, Campaign for America’s Future co-director Robert Borosage argues that Sanders can already claim victory in Iowa.
"Iowa isn’t about who wins the most delegates; it is about who gains momentum and legitimacy," Borosage wrote on Monday. "What Sanders has already won is very real."
"He’s put forth a bold, populist agenda. He’s challenged the grip of big money on our politics," Borosage continued. "And he’s shown that his message can electrify the young and attract working people."
"Sanders is putting the powers that be on notice," he added. "This rigged system doesn’t work for the vast majority of Americans. And the complacent politics of the establishment center offer no way out. The elites of both parties better figure out how to cut Americans a better deal—or Americans will demand a new dealer."
Looking ahead to the next major contest in New Hampshire, Sanders continues to hold first place in the February 9 primary 57 percent compared with Clinton's 34 percent, according to a University of New Hampshire poll released Sunday.