It’s a cliché in political reporting: turnout decides elections. The candidate who gets more people to the polls wins.
Campaigns love to talk about turnout in the finals days of a campaign, when there is little else to say.
Democrats, in particular, pitch over and over that when people turnout, they win. Statistically, more people identify as Democrats nationwide, but that does not always correlate to the number of people who take time to get to the polls, who have the means, interest and will to vote.
In the days before the Democratic primary kicked off with the Iowa caucuses, it was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders who was talking a lot about turnout.
“On Monday night, we will know very, very early, who wins the Democratic Caucus. If the voter turnout is low. We're going to lose. Simple as all that,” he told a crowd in Indianola, Iowa on Saturday.
Since launching his first presidential campaign in 2015 and continuing through this second bid all last year, his team has focused extensive time and resources to get new potential voters into the political process.
It’s a different kind of conversation about turnout for Sanders.
His philosophy is that boosting turnout in a significant and meaningful way comes not only by exciting existing Democrats, but organizing and rallying nonvoters into Democrats.
His mission and ability to do that has been central to his argument about why he is the best candidate for Democrats in a general election.
“I think we are the strongest campaign to defeat Trump, because we are developing the strongest grassroots movement in this campaign,” Sanders continued in Indianola. His team has expressed confidence in his ability to win her and polls have showed him surging.
Now, Monday is a major test as to whether he can deliver.
“What we believe is that the only way we defeat Donald Trump is through people,” said Sanders’ Iowa State Director Misty Rebik in an interview with ABC News. “The way we strength the Democratic Party - to not only defeat Donald Trump or win back the senate and do all the other ambitious goal we need to do to transform this country - is to expand the electorate and that includes talking directly to working class people and meeting them where they are.”
Rebik said she is proud of “unconventional” tactics her team has employed: hanging out at diners, gas stations, in CVS parking lots. They hosted a futsal tournament as a part of their outreach to the Latino communities in the state, a family event that also included a conversation about politics and how to caucus.
“We have been trying to create new entry points into the political process this entire time. We’ll see if it works,” Rebik added.
“Even if we don’t see the kind of unprecedented turnout on Monday or the expanded electorate on the way we want to on Monday night, this investment doesn’t wash away," she said. "You don’t change the electorate in one cycle. It is going to take a long-term investment and from not only our campaign,” she continued.
Competing campaigns are anxious that Sanders may even try to declare a sort-of victory Monday night by arguing, if true, that more people walked in the door ready to caucus for him, even if another candidate emerges on top once all the moving and shaking in a caucus rooms take place.
Sanders’ team claims that in January alone they knocked on 500,000 doors in Iowa, a state with only 3 million people.
As of Jan. 2, there has only been a modest uptick in Democratic voter registrations in Iowa that largely seemed to track with population growth: 160,786 compared to 154,666 in February of 2016.Voters who want to participate in the first-in-the-nation caucus can, however, register as a Democrat on caucus day.
Still, it's also easy to see why the caucuses are a uniquely hard place to get new people involved. The process can take hours. Unlike ballot box voting, there is no mail in option and most people have to show up right at 7pm, regardless of whether that time is convenient at all.
“You have to plan your life out to participate and it is huge barrier to entry and especially for people that we need to expand the electorate: working class people, people who are working two or three jobs,” Rebik continued.
Businessman Andrew Yang’s team showed a highly produced how-to-caucus video at his events over the weekend assuming that many of his supporters may be new to the process too.
Asked about Sanders’ staying power in this race and recent surges in polls, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price told reporters Friday that he recently attended a Sanders event with over a thousand people and he recognized three.
“So, I mean there's no question that he just as he did in 2016, Senator Sanders is activating new people in this process, he's activating more energy, or brings his energy into this process,” Price said.
For a campaign that has had a tenuous relationship with the Democratic establishment, this line of praise for Sanders’ campaign in the final days before the caucuses sticks out.
Sanders’ drive to get new potential voters into the process is part of what fuels his willingness to tangle with the Democratic Party, or at least not to shy away from public fights. An increasing number of Americans say they are disillusioned with both parties. President Donald Trump tapped into this fact to his advantage too.
In the 2016 general election, voter turnout was at about 60 percent. Of course there are many reasons so many Americans have stayed out of the political process: apathy, protest, access and means hurdles, disinterest in the two-party system and more.
According to Pew, nearly four-in-ten U.S. adults identify as politically independent: "most ‘lean’ toward one of the two major parties. Only 7% of Americans overall don’t express a partisan leaning, while 13% lean toward the Republican Party and 17% lean toward the Democratic Party.”
Last year Gallup reported, “significantly more U.S. adults continued to identify as political independents (42%) in 2018 than as either Democrats (30%) or Republicans (26%). At least four in 10 Americans have been political independents in seven of the past eight years, including a record-high 43% in 2014.”
Over the weekend, Sanders’ surrogate, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, apologized after booing alongside people in Sanders’ crowds at the mention of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton, of course, a week ago, attacked Sanders’ publicly and said “no one” liked him.
After Tlaib apologized though, Sanders’ campaign manager tweeted at her telling her they loved her passion.
The episode in some ways sums up the risks and rewards of trying to win back those voters who specifically left because they were frustrated with the two parties.
A candidate may be able to woo them back by making them feel seen and heard, but might also seriously alienate and turnoff voters who are engaged in party politics.
"Suddenly the Republican National Committee is tweeting about our campaign. Suddenly we have the Democratic establishment very nervous about this campaign. We've got, we've got the insurance companies nervous. We've got the drug companies nervous. …We are their worst nightmare,” Sanders said in Sioux City, Iowa earlier this month.
For some party-line voters, that language feels too polarizing.
Like with any candidate, if Sanders can show a ground swell of supporter it could change skeptical minds back in Washington. Without it though, he loses one of his best arguments for why he is the best pick.