AMES, Iowa — With Sen. Bernie Sanders largely stuck in DC in the days leading up to the first contest of the 2020 election, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is storming across Iowa for his campaign and making a big name for herself in the process.
On Saturday morning, the Sanders campaign’s field office in Cedar Rapids was filled with chants of “AOC” as Ocasio-Cortez walked to the front of the room. Her reputation — driven by her Twitter presence, her role in the vanguard of a new generation of progressive Democrats, and by the prolific attacks on her from the right — had somewhat preceded her.
“I would have her be president. She’s unabashed. She’s not afraid of the political garbage that we have,” said Joe Organist, 60, at the stop in Cedar Falls. “If I were running for president, she’d be the only one I’d want speaking for me.”
He added that he’d come to the Sanders event partly because he knew Ocasio-Cortez would be there.
For other voters at the Sanders campaign events in Iowa on Saturday, however, this was their first time really getting to know her, and in some cases, the first time they’d even heard of her.
Close to two dozen voters who spoke to BuzzFeed News over the course of the four-stop day, including two with Sanders, said they were impressed with her — several adding that they would like to see her be part of a Sanders cabinet, and could see her running for president down the track. (Ocasio-Cortez, who is 30, is not yet old enough to be president or vice president.)
“I actually didn’t know anything about her. My friend told me about this,” said Dominique Eniola, 21, a student at the University of Northern Iowa. “I have heard that a lot of politicians don’t like her because she’s a woman and because she’s very ‘radical.’ I think a lot of people throw around the word radical very interchangeably because they might not like just one key thing about someone. I think it is very hard being a woman and not having people take you seriously.”
“I didn’t even know who she was, to be honest,” said Angela Hodge, 45, at a town hall in Marshalltown. “I love her. I love that she’s multicultural, being multicultural myself, I am Hispanic … I would like to see her in more politics because I think she really has a lot to say and it’s very meaningful. She has a lot of good points that she made.”
Ocasio-Cortez made her second swing through Iowa this weekend — last time she was here, in November with Sanders, her focus was on a climate forum at Drake University. In December, she spoke at a campaign stop in Las Vegas entirely in Spanish, in an event that saw young Latino Sanders supporters bring in their parents and grandparents to engage directly in their first language for the first time in the presidential campaign.
Ocasio-Cortez’s approach on the presidential campaign trail — dating back to her first New York City rally after endorsing Sanders in October — is a combination of sweeping progressive discourse tied in to very personal stories. This weekend, she talked about the “surreal” experience of sleeping on an air mattress in her first days in Congress, and then walking to work on the Hill, where she says she was “told that our lives are too politically inconvenient to fight for.”
“She’s got such a captivating voice. She makes you feel like she’s no more important than you,” said Matt Schneider, 23, a Sanders volunteer canvasser at the Cedar Rapids event on Saturday morning. He added that he would “support her in almost anything she does.”
“I think she can go as far as she wants. I would love to see her in a Bernie cabinet position,” said Catherine Shea, 37, at the same event.
During a stop at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, a woman stood up and told Ocasio-Cortez a story about her wages being garnished because of medical debt.
“I’m going to try not to cry because you’re right there,” the woman said, before she started crying. After hugging her, Ocasio-Cortez told her own story of not being able to afford blood tests her doctor said she needed — while she was running for Congress.
“It is so wrong. This is so wrong,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “To garnish a person’s wages because they needed to go to the doctor is morally wrong.”
Some Iowans have been paying attention to Ocasio-Cortez’s online presence and also how she’s conducted herself in several high-profile hearings since becoming a member of Congress last year.
“She’s young, but she’s an extremely astute politician, and a sharp questioner in hearings. I also really like that she pays her staff a living wage,” said Joe Balong, 47, who is undecided between Sanders and Warren. “I hope that she remains on the national stage. I would love to see her run for president one day. I think she’d absolutely be a great cabinet member.”
“She’s all over the place, so even the average person would know [who she is],” said Ricardo Ligas, 26, at an event in Cedar Falls. “She’s genuine and it's refreshing just to see someone young. Years from now hopefully, with good health, she’s doing the same thing. It would be very ambitious to say right away, ‘Oh run for president,’ but as long as she keeps doing right by her district, maybe in 30 or 40 years, or sooner than that, I could see a presidential run.”
As Trump’s lawyers wrapped up their arguments earlier than scheduled Saturday, Sanders was able to join Ocasio-Cortez for two events, before joining her for more on Sunday. The senator spoke of Ocasio-Cortez as the next generation in his political movement.
“I honestly cannot remember any first-term member of Congress having as much of an impact on our country as Alexandria has,” he said at a Saturday night rally in Ames.
Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement was always going to be a significant get for any of the progressive candidates — but her presence on the campaign trail has become even more important as Trump’s Senate impeachment trial continues to keep four of the candidates off the campaign trail.
As Sanders has pulled ahead in some polls of Iowa in recent days, his campaign continues to emphasize that turnout is going to be key to actually winning the nomination — and Ocasio-Cortez could potentially drive that turnout, especially among younger voters.
“On caucus night, if somebody tells you that turnout is high, we can win,” Sanders said Saturday night.
On Friday night, the end of the third day of Trump’s impeachment trial in DC, Sanders was in the Senate chamber, sometimes “slouched in his chair and staring at the floor” and in another moment “rubbing his head aggressively,” according to a reporter in the Senate.
At the same time, at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Ocasio-Cortez was commanding a crowd of more than 800. On Saturday, she made four stops across the state, culminating in a packed rally in Ames, just outside Des Moines, where voters jostled for space with dozens of reporters.
"I think she's received well in Iowa," said Alisha Jenecke, 36, who also saw Ocasio-Cortez at the climate forum in November. "I like her compassion and the fact that she's passionate about issues and gets right in there, in their face."