INDIANOLA, Iowa — Bernie Sanders likes to call it “practicing democracy.” He doesn’t take the stage to a blaring soundtrack. He doesn’t have a teleprompter or a phalanx of Secret Service agents surrounding him. But when his Brooklyn accent booms out at a campaign stop in rural Iowa, heads nod along in approval.
“What I’m doing in this campaign is trying to tell the people the truth – but a truth which is not heard a whole lot in Washington or discussed a lot in the media,” Sanders said recently at a picnic in Iowa’s Warren County, south of Des Moines.
“So let me lay it out on the table for you,” he said. “You’re living in a country today which has more wealth and income inequality than any major industrialized nation on earth.”
In a race for the Democratic presidential nomination with Hillary Rodham Clinton, the blunt talk about the economy and the gap between the rich and poor is working for Sanders. The independent senator from Vermont is an unconventional messenger at a time when many politicians test-drive what they want to say in polls and with focus groups.
Sanders is drawing sizable crowds in the early voting states. He’s also gaining against Clinton in very early polls, particularly in New Hampshire, a factor that impresses the political class even though opinion surveys at this point are limited in predicting who will win.
Clinton remains the race’s overwhelming favorite, but there’s no question that the 73-year-old self-described democratic socialist, whose disheveled white hair might remind some of Doc Brown from “Back to the Future,” isn’t just a novelty.
“This is a unique individual,” said Iowa Democratic state Rep. Scott Ourth, who introduced Sanders last weekend at the picnic in Indianola. “This guy has only one standard. If it’s right for people, he’s going to fight for it. If it’s bad for people, he’s going to take a stand against it.”
Drawing unexpectedly large crowds, the campaign has moved a town meeting planned in Las Vegas on Friday into a more spacious venue. About 5,000 people are expected at a rally Saturday at the University of Denver.
“The challenge for us, really, is that at this point the crowds are way ahead of us,” said Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver.
Sanders is running with a relentless focus on policy. He rarely talks about his family, other than mentioning his four children and 7 grandchildren when explaining the importance of confronting climate change. In Minneapolis he was joined on stage by his wife, Jane, and noted they had just celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary.
He’s promoting a massive government-led jobs program to fix roads and bridges. He wants a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and higher taxes on the wealthy and Wall Street. He advocates for a single-payer health care system, an expansion of Social Security benefits and debt-free college.
He’s combative, too.
Sanders often points to some European and Scandinavian countries that provide subsidized or free education, universal health care and generous family leave policies as models for the U.S.
While speaking to graduate students recently, Sanders asked a student from Finland whether his country is “crazy” to pay for his education. Then he grilled the students about U.S. policy on paid sick leave for new parents.
“C’mon guys, you’re in graduate school!” he barked. “What are you teaching these guys? Do you know anything?”
One woman yelled, “None,” meaning no national policy on such leave. Nodding, Sanders instructed the students that people in Finland get paid leave after they have children.
“Ahhh. Now I want to get everybody very nervous,” Sanders said sarcastically. “This is called European socialism! Terrible, horrible, right? Because none of you want to be able to go to college and graduate school tuition-free.
“None of you, when you have kids, want the opportunity to bond with your kids. Terrible! European socialism!”
His speeches often reflect such a black-and-white view of the world. He rarely mentions that tax rates in such countries are far higher than in the U.S.
It’s a style that couldn’t be more different than Clinton’s.
Hours before the first major rally of her campaign, Clinton released a Spotify playlist of songs, featuring music by Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson and Sara Bareilles. One of her campaign Twitter feeds showed a green silhouette of her head wearing trendy headphones.
Clinton has been traveling with Secret Service agents since her husband’s presidency in the 1990s.
Sanders shows up at rallies and events with a small contingent of aides. In Indianola, he carried a folded piece of paper scrawled with notes while he spoke.
Other presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire will linger long after their speeches, trying to shake every hand and make a personal connection with a potential voter. Sanders doesn’t make a lot of small talk. After receiving a standing ovation in Indianola, he was stopped repeatedly for photos and handshakes – which he obliged – but he kept moving.
“Very quickly, very quickly,” he said to one man requesting a photograph.
For all of that, the woman he’s challenging is perhaps the most dominant front-runner within the party in a generation.
“Clinton is going to be a safer bet,” said John MacBride, a 24-year-old Sanders supporter who drove from Kansas City to see him speak. “A lot of my peers think she’s a safer bet. But they like what he says better.”