Pork Plant Workers Turn Out for Sanders in First Caucus in Iowa

Just over two dozen workers gathered at the headquarters of the local United Food and Commercial Workers, with 14 casting their votes for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Pork plant workers caucus in Ottumwa, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020. Photo: Elise Swain/The Intercept

The first caucus in Iowa was held at noon at a union hall in Ottumwa, about an hour and a half from Des Moines, where meatpackers and other workers unable to vote in the evening’s official caucuses were given the chance to cast ballots at a satellite caucus.

Just over a dozen workers gathered at the headquarters of the local United Food and Commercial Workers, with 14 casting their votes for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. One attendee cast their vote for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Satellite caucuses will continue to be held at union halls, senior centers, and universities throughout the afternoon, leading up to the regularly scheduled caucuses on Monday evening at 7 p.m. central time.


Pork plant workers cast their votes for Sen. Bernie Sanders during a satellite caucus in Ottumwa, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020.

Photo: Elise Swain/The Intercept

The caucus in Ottumwa, population 24,550, on the banks of the Des Moines River, will net Sanders four delegates for their congressional district, according to caucus chair Frank Flanders, the political director for the UFCW Local 230. The Warren supporter said she would not realign, meaning that her vote effectively won’t count toward anything.

The turnout for Sanders among union members reflects the campaign’s strategy of mobilizing nontraditional voters. Many of the Ottumwa meatpackers are immigrants, largely of Ethiopian origin or descent — not the corn-fed farmers typically associated in the popular imagination with the Iowa caucuses.

Phillip Cross, a 67-year-old defatter at the JBS pork plant and a first-time caucuser who showed up for Sanders, said it was a decision his union made. “Local 230 pretty much decided that it was Bernie Sanders,” he told The Intercept. Asked whether he was worried about Sanders’ electability, Cross brushed off the idea. “From 2016, it will tell you, anyone is capable of winning,” he said, saying he liked Sanders’s goals of equal pay regardless of gender and universal healthcare. “I like a lot of his goals. … He believes everybody deserves to be taken care of when they’re sick. He’s just being pretty much what everybody else really dreams about.”

While the Ottumwa caucus was the first in the state, the first Iowa caucus was actually held in Tbilisi, Georgia. The results of that three-person caucus will be announced on Monday night.

Iowa polls have shown an extraordinarily close and volatile race, with Sanders capturing late momentum heading into the caucus. A number of recent polls showed Sanders consistently surging in the days leading up to Iowa, followed by a slew of stories on how Democratic Party stalwarts are strategizing and spending to keep Sanders from winning the nomination.

Their argument centers on the question of electability and the idea that Sanders is not equipped to beat President Donald Trump. Sanders does lead Trump in a handful of polls when they’re competing head to head, and in polls in which he’s behind the president, he performs fairly close to the center’s idea of electability: former Vice President Joe Biden or former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Warren performs similarly to Sanders. On Sunday, the Sanders campaign released an ad highlighting his ability to defeat Trump in the general election.

The center’s attempts to derail Sanders’s nationwide surge have seemed to backfire. Outside political action committees spent big to back Biden and Buttigieg, and a Democratic pro-Israel group with deep ties to the far-right Israel lobby group, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee spent on the first ads attacking Sanders by name just last week. Hillary Clinton launched another attack on Sanders in a podcast interview. The attacks only boosted Sanders’s war chest: His campaign raised $1.3 million in a day after the attack ads ran in Iowa.


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States that hold caucuses instead of primaries use the process to elect state delegate equivalents. Iowa’s 41 pledged delegates will vote at the state party convention in June. The number of state delegates for each candidate determines how many national convention delegates they get; those national delegates vote in July at the party’s national convention in Milwaukee.

None of the backlash to Sanders’s rise comes as a surprise. He faced a similar battle against Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, struggling to beat her superdelegate count in multiple states where he won the popular vote comfortably. That included Washington state, where he won close to 73 percent of the vote; Colorado, where he won 59 percent of the vote; New Hampshire; Kansas; and Maine. “If I win a state with 70 percent of the vote, you know what? I think I am entitled to those superdelegates,” Sanders said.

The Democratic National Committee attempted to address those concerns with a historic rule change in 2018, stripping superdelegates of the power to vote on the first ballot at the national convention, something critics said allowed a small group of powerful party figures to override the will of voters.

For all the fanfare around the first-in-the-nation caucus, Iowa accounts for only around 1 percent of the total national delegates who will determine the party’s nominee in July. Candidates have faced increased pressure this cycle to denounce what critics say is an arbitrary order that unfairly centers majority white voters in an increasingly diverse nation. But the event is largely seen as setting the pace of the coming months, as a number of states hold their caucuses in the coming weeks.

Follow The Intercept and subscribe to Intercepted for more in-depth coverage of the Iowa caucuses.

Update: February 3, 2:35 p.m.
This piece has been updated with details about the delegate count and an interview.

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