Tough audience.

Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

How Sanders Won the Heart of Clinton, Iowa

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Polls show that Bernie Sanders has drawn level with Hillary Clinton in Iowa or perhaps even overtaken her. After attending the two Democrats' events in the town of Clinton on Saturday, I think I know why.

Hillary Clinton's event, in a well-equipped elementary school on the edge of town, was first. When the doors opened 90 minutes before the former secretary of state was scheduled to appear, there was a modest line caused by Secret Service screening. About 250 people filled the cozy auditorium, a decorous bunch in sweats and jeans of whom the only people under the age of 35 -- perhaps a dozen in all -- had come with parents or older relatives. The upbeat pop soundtrack included Pharrell Williams's "Happy." 

Clinton emerged from backstage four minutes ahead of schedule, freshly made-up and immaculate. She was perfect in every respect, from the unavoidable joke about the town's name at the beginning ("You didn't have to name it; I would have come anyway") to the spontaneous-sounding but obviously rehearsed answers to questions that followed her speech ("I'll match my endurance against anyone," the former secretary of state told a woman who'd heard on Fox News that she supposedly had health problems).

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Clinton was perfectly prepared. She began with a reference to DeWitt Clinton, the 19th-century New York governor who built the Erie Canal and whose name the quiet town of 30,000 actually bears. She went on to show off some knowledge of local issues. The audience gasped as she cited a letter from a Clinton woman who had complained about the price of a prescription drug she'd been taking since the 1980s. It had gone up from $180 to more than $14,000 for the same 10 injections, giving Clinton an opening to rail against pharmaceutical companies, including the maker of this particular drug, Valeant, a firm, she said, that was "owned by Wall Street speculators" whose "price gouging" she vowed to stop.

Not a hair moved on her head, not a wrinkle emerged on her perfectly fitting fuchsia jacket, and her perfect smile never wavered. She didn't even sip from the glass of ice water that had been set out for her. The whole performance looked like something my young daughter wants to enact with her dolls but can never achieve because her little hands are too messy.

Clinton made clear her vision of her presidency: She’d try to push through incremental improvements in job creation (through a program of infrastructure projects), health care (through tweaking Obamacare so more people could benefit) and education (through making community college more accessible). In one of her few mentions of Sanders, she said the two of them had a common goal -- universal health care. But, she said: "He wants to start over, and I want to build on our achievements. It's a shorter distance to 100 percent from 90 percent than from zero." In a pointed reference to DeWitt Clinton and his improbable canal project, she explained her approach: "He did what he had to do, he worked the politics, and I know all about that."

Her audience agreed. "She knows how to get things done," was the comment I got from several people. But that same audience -- if one disregards the active volunteers -- only rose to its feet to cheer twice, once when Clinton vowed to procure equal pay for equal work for women and again when she railed against Wall Street financiers.

By the time Sanders's event was scheduled to begin, I wasn't alone making my way across town to a low-ceilinged basement room at the Masonic Center. The atmosphere couldn't have been more different. The crowd was about four times as big, and about three quarters of it was young. There were kids barely old enough to vote, girls with hair dyed every color of the rainbow, young parents with babies in their arms. The kind of young people Hillary often mentioned during her event -- only they weren't there to hear her.

The scene was chaotic. The soundtrack included John Lennon's "Power to the People." There was laughter and horseplay, and anyone who wanted could have brought a gun into the room; no one was checked.

Sanders made his way to the lectern (Clinton hadn't used one) through part of the throng. There was nothing magical about his entrance. Stooped, he shuffled along, shaking some hands but barely looking at the people who cheered for him. He leaned on the lectern as if he needed the support. His voice was hoarse and phlegmy, but it had the perfect timbre for the kind of angry oratory he had come to deliver.

Sanders never bothered with local lore. His speech was his standard one, suitable for any city, any state. Where Clinton had said "I," stressing her qualifications and experience, Sanders unfailingly used "we." He made it sound as if he weren't running for the job that personifies power to the whole world. He insisted that the campaign -- the movement, the "political revolution" -- would have to continue after the election if any effect was to be achieved. He wasn't promising to get anything done. He was proposing an agenda for his audience to keep pushing with his help.

His audience, too, cheered when he slammed banks and corporations. Almost everyone raised a hand when he asked who had too much student debt, and about a third of the audience did so again when he inquired about excessive Obamacare deductibles. He was talking about the same things as Clinton -- paying for universal health care and free college education by closing tax loopholes used by the wealthy and corporations. Yet his message seemed to have more impact, his credibility enhanced by his pride in collecting 2.5 million campaign contributions averaging $27 apiece and by the evangelical zeal behind his belief that the most ambitious goals were achievable through collective action, not backroom dealing.

Remember, this was a very young audience. Its energy, however, was infectious even to the 40- and 50-year-olds in the hall. They, too, were moved to shout "Feel the Bern!" when the pretty girl with the nose ring standing next to them did. When I asked people after the rally why they liked Sanders better than Clinton, the leitmotif was that they had no patience for incremental change. A story Sanders had told about a woman who was paying back her daughter's student debt while she still had some of her own had resonated.

Sanders, 74, has no special skill with young people. His oratorical prowess, preparation, flexibility, intellectual crispness and sheer stage presence are all inferior to Clinton's. It's just that an audience unable to buy a compromise message has latched on to him because he's not interested in accommodation.

I doubt Sanders's army of youngsters is going to prevail in the caucuses on Feb. 1: That would require outlasting patient realists of their parents' generation who want the same things but don't believe in revolutions. Even if Clinton does win the Democratic nomination and the presidency, though, these young people won't take kindly to having their dream taken away. They will remember Sanders's defeat as a defining moment in their lives.

As both Sanders and Clinton remember from their own youth, an angry generation may refuse to give up without a fight.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net