Sanders onstage with Vampire Weekend lead singer Ezra Koenig. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
IOWA CITY, Iowa — When I told the barista at a nearby café where I was headed, he said I’d better hurry. He’d seen a guy camped out in front of the entrance to the University of Iowa’s Field House the night before — as if it were a Beyoncé concert or a new iPhone release. Luckily, most people began to gather for the Bernie Sanders rally around 4:30 p.m. — three hours before the event was slated to start. The line quickly shot across the street, past an undergraduate dormitory, down a hill, around the corner and deep into a residential street. Though it was a cold Saturday night and the student-filled venue was far from the local bars on the other side of town, the energy was palpable. “Ber-nie, Ber-nie, Ber-nie,” the crowd chanted every few minutes. Thousands of people — mostly young, first-time voters — were there on a Saturday night to see the balding 74-year-old socialist.
Well, mostly. According to the programs that were handed out, Sanders would be the finale to an impressive star-studded lineup. Those promised onstage included comedic duo the Lucas Brothers, “Hunger Games” star Josh Hutcherson, philosopher and activist Cornel West, Foster the People’s Mark Foster, and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. As one circulating Bernie meme implied, the three-stage production was basically Coachella.
Though Sanders has enjoyed support from many artists, musicians, actors and intellectuals since he announced his campaign last April, none of his events have wielded the cool appeal of his famous supporters quite like Saturday’s. Just moments before the lights dimmed and the music quieted, the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll revealed Sanders to be trailing just two points behind Hillary Clinton. The Vermont senator’s chance to win the Iowa contest rests on whether he and his ambassadors are able to motivate his massive audiences this weekend — and perhaps some of their absent friends — to caucus for him Monday night.
Women with glowing Bernie signs watching the rally from the auditorium rafters. (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo News)
Whoever orchestrated the event seemed to know that. As people filed into the vast auditorium floor, carrying signs scrawled with phrases like “Talk Bernie to me” and “Bern down for what!?” a playlist of songs containing the word “burn” played over the speakers. Bernie staff handed out mini American flags and campaign signs to those lucky enough to get a spot near the stage podium. I caught a brief whiff of pot smoke as the lights dimmed and a clip of young Bernie began to play on a giant screen.
Watch the performances from the rally in the video above.
After a group of student organizers reminded the crowd of Monday night’s caucus times, some lesser-known musicians jumped onstage to warm the crowd with songs they’d prepared for the occasion. The chorus of one ditty from a trio named Jill, Kay, and Michelle, for instance, was: “They say they want our America back, but what the f*** does that mean?” The audience gleefully chanted along.
At one point, the Lucas Brothers — a pair of up-and-coming identical-twin comedians — emerged to discuss Bernie. “Hey Kenny: Why do you support him?” Keith asked. “He’s dope,” Kenny replied to applause. “That’s all you need.”
With that, a bearded Josh Hutcherson emerged onstage to face a wall of high-pitched screams. He wore a flannel button-up replete with Bernie pins, layered over a white tee with an outline of Sanders’ head. If you didn’t recognize him as Peeta, you could’ve very well mistaken him for an undergrad.
Supporters in the crowd. (Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)
“We need this revolution,” he said, as if he were speaking to District 12. “We need someone who can lead us and looks out for all our interests. … We all have to come together.” He ended his speech by introducing Mike Foster of the Band Foster the People, who took a seat on the adjacent stage in an all-red suit and began to play his hits.
A few songs later, a lively Cornel West took the stage and launched into a speech that was part sermon, part pro-wrestling battle cry. “He stands up for children of every color, the working people of any color, gay lesbian, bisexual, transgender of any color,” he bellowed. Once the crowd was panting from applause, he introduced Vampire Weekend.
Lead singer Ezra Koenig took the stage alongside a group of students from the University of Iowa a cappella group, launching into “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” When he’d finally finished his set with “Unbelievers,” Koenig took a moment to discuss Sanders.
“That song’s a little nihilistic: ‘I’m not excited but should I be?’” Koenig said, reciting the chorus. “Obviously, the answer is yes. This is the first time that any of us have really come out to play music to support a candidate. Maybe for you guys it’s the first time you came out to a rally to see somebody. I think we all know the reason why. This is a once-in-a-lifetime candidate. We don’t see somebody like this all the time. Thank God we have YouTube! We can go back and watch Bernie’s speeches. 1991 — what’s he saying? Same thing he’s saying today. And it’s not boring, it’s amazing!”
And then Koenig brought on the headliner himself.
Sanders addresses the crowd in Iowa City. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
Sanders took the stage as the crowd cheered “Ber-nie, Ber-nie, Ber-nie.” “Whoa — there’s a lotta people here!” he exclaimed. Like the other evening acts, he played all his classic hits: Citizens United, the Koch brothers, breaking up the big banks, criminal justice, free tuition. But for a moment, he diverted from his typical script.
“I know that none of you know anything about marijuana,” Sanders said to the crowd, sending a wave of giggles through the audience. “In terms of marijuana, what we are seeing is a lot of lives that are really hurt, because if you get it on your criminal record, possession of marijuana, it could impact your ability to get a job. That is why I have introduced legislation and will move forward as president to take marijuana out of the Controlled Substances Act.”
The crowd went wild.
As the speech wound down, Sanders made an appeal directly to the students in the crowd.
“The pundits say, ‘Young people, they come out to rallies, but you know what? They’re not going to come out to participate in the caucus,’” he said, as the crowd booed enthusiastically. “So how would you like to make the pundits look dumb on Election Night?”
Once he’d finished, Vampire Weekend took the stage again, this time playing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” As students began to file out of the building, Sanders and his wife, Jane, took the stage to sing along.
One college student in braids looked back and eyed them, swaying.
“He’s a cutie,” she said to her friends, smiling.