DES MOINES — Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said about voter turnout on Tuesday what he always says about voter turnout: If it's high, he and his aides say, he can win the Iowa caucuses.
But he also lowered the ceiling for what "high" means, warning observers not to expect President Obama's unforgettable Iowa caucus night to be repeated this time around.
"Obama in 2008 ran a campaign which is really going to stay in the history books. It was an unbelievable campaign. In places they ran out of ballots as I understand it," Sanders said during a frigid press conference next to his campaign bus. "Do I think that in this campaign that we're going to match that? I would love to see us do that. I hope we do. But frankly I don't think we will. What happened in 2008 was extraordinary."
Sanders has been comparing his campaign to Obama's 2008 bid more and more in recent days. He tells Iowans on the stump not to believe Hillary Clinton messaging that he's unelectable, that his vision for a new progressive-driven American politics is naive. Those are the same arguments, Sanders says, Clinton made about Obama, and he wants Iowans to remember how that turned out.
"We get attacked about five times a day," Sanders said during a rally in Clinton, Iowa, last week. "But it reminds me very much of what happened here in Iowa eight years ago. Remember that? Eight years ago, Obama was being attacked for everything. He was unrealistic; his ideas were pie-in-the sky; he did not have the experience that was needed."
"You know what?" Sanders told the crowd. "People of Iowa saw through those attacks then, and they're going to see through those attacks again."
Clinton aides, and the candidate herself, were overjoyed Monday when Politico published an interview with Obama where the president pretty clearly dismissed the idea that Sanders is carrying on his legacy. Obama made many of the same arguments about Sanders that Clinton does, namely that Clinton represents the politics of the possible and Sanders does not.
However, there are parallels here in Iowa in the way Sanders hopes to win. His campaign is fueled by young, energetic boosters and people fed up with establishment politics. His campaign is working hard to pull out people who don't usually caucus, attempting to drive up the minuscule turnout that defines Iowa's complicated and unwelcoming-to-neophytes process.
Obama relied on those people too (plus healthy support from minority voters that Sanders has not matched, even as some of his minority support numbers have risen of late).
The central claim from Clinton folks these days is that Sanders lacks broad enough support to win Iowa. Concentrated groups of support won't win Iowa, and Clinton people doubt he has enough support in enough counties to win the majority of delegates.
Sanders is aware of this theory.
"We have some fairly sophisticated people who know about the caucus process here in Iowa," he said Tuesday. "We understand that if we get all of our votes in certain communities it is not going to do for us what has to be done. So we are working hard all over the state of Iowa. The hope is that work will pay off."
Sanders is projecting a campaign that can do some of what Obama's did — first time caucus goers, young caucus goers, enthusiastic boosters — but telling observers not to expect a 2008 redux. The race is "nip and tuck" close, he told the reporters huddled next to his bus.
So don't expect 2008 exactly, Sanders said. But don't be surprised if it's a little bit of 2008.
"What we are doing — and remember we started our ground game organization in Iowa a lot later than Secretary Clinton did," Sanders said. "She was here in 2008, has experience that we did not have. She's done this once before. We didn't. She has a very strong organization. But I will tell you that in the last couple of months we have gained a whole lot of ground and, again, I think we stand a real chance to create a large voter turnout. I doubt it will be as high as 2008 was, but I think that it will be high enough for us to win in Iowa."