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Voters in Iowa Care More About Key Issues Than Warren-Sanders Unity

"What people are talking about on the doors is nothing like what's on social media."

JoAnn Conrad, a Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer, canvases a residential neighborhood on January 31, 2016 in West Burlington, Iowa. The 2020 Iowa caucuses will be on February 3.  (Photo: Michael B. Thomas / AFP via Getty Images)

JoAnn Conrad, a Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer, canvases a residential neighborhood on January 31, 2016 in West Burlington, Iowa. The 2020 Iowa caucuses will be on February 3.  (Photo: Michael B. Thomas / AFP via Getty Images)

It was a balmy 70 degrees in New York City last Saturday, and the excited green croci began tipping through the earth. Now, that same ground is icy, and those tips are frozen stiff, and I’ve been fearing that the same fate might befall hopeful progressive voters in the wake of the Warren/Sanders tiff.

The debate stage dust-up between the Democrats’ two leading progressives came as manna to the money media, which would always rather cover a handshake than a policy plank. Given a choice between covering tit-for-tat tweets and reporting on voting rights or publicly-owned generic drugs, the brought-to-you-by-Big-Pharma news networks will always go where it’s easiest.

And so I might have gone on believing a big freeze was on if not for a press release from Democracy for America. Eighteen days before the Iowa caucuses, they released a Unity Pledge signed by eighteen left-of-center groups, agreeing to stick together to defeat the corporate Democrats. Signatories included groups who have endorsed Sanders and groups who have endorsed Warren as well as unaligned organizations. “It’s not just about being nice; it’s a serious strategy question,” said Maurice Mitchell, executive director of The Working Families Party, which took serious heat for endorsing Warren. “Together, progressives could beat any one of the centrists, but if the base of one turns against the other, we lose.”

A nationally negotiated sign-on is nice, but it has a crocus’s chance in ice if it’s not reflected in organizing, which caused me to call Iowa. The actual Iowans I spoke to hadn’t heard about any pledge, but neither were they too involved in tweeting. “Door knocking resets your brain,” said Taylor Blair, former president of the Iowa State Student Union. “What people are talking about on the doors is nothing like what’s on social media.”

Bernie-backer Susie Petra belongs to a chapter of Our Revolution that includes both Warren and Sanders supporters, some of whom are co-writing a letter to the Ames Journal, making the point that it’s the policies they’re voting for, not the person. “It’s our election,” Petra told me. “It needs to keep focused on us.” 

For all of its flaws, Iowa may actually be a good place to test the unity idea. Iowa’s caucus system forces voters to hash things out neighbor to neighbor, face to face. The grassroots groups involved in the pledge are asking progressives not to leave February 3rd without casting their final vote for either Warren or Sanders, even if their top pick fails to meet the viability threshold of 15 percent. The second round of caucusing will be something to watch.

The real game changer around here, though, might be Iowa State University’s decision, after years of pressure, to issue new student IDs, enabling 35,000 students to vote, even under Iowa’s restrictive new voter-ID law. That’s a progressive victory, and in a different media universe, it would be a story even juicier than a handshake.

Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders is the award-winning host and executive producer of The Laura Flanders Show, a nationally-syndicated TV and radio program that looks at real-life models of shifting power in the arts, economics and politics. Flanders founded the women’s desk at media watch group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) and produced and hosted the radio program CounterSpin for a decade. She is also the author of six books, including The New York Times best-seller BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species. Flanders was named Most Valuable Multi-Media Maker of 2018 in The Nation’s Progressive Honor Roll, and was awarded the Izzy Award in 2019 for outstanding achievement in independent media.

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