Walt Pregler, the 81-year-old Democratic chairman of Dubuque County, Iowa, is a party activist, a proud union member and makes it his job every presidential season to turn out Democratic caucusgoers within his region.
He’s just not going to be turning them out for Sen. Bernard Sanders.
“I’m a good union man, and he’s a scab. He’s always been outside looking in,” Mr. Pregler said, referring to Mr. Sanders, who has served in Congress as an independent, declining to identify as a Democrat — a fact that irks Mr. Pregler, who has been working within the party apparatus for decades.
Mr. Pregler is not alone.
In the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr. Sanders isn’t playing by the traditional Democratic playbook — and party members have taken note.
His rivals, front-runner Hillary Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, take pains to attend the intimate 50-person house parties that are the staple of Democratic campaigns in early states, but Mr. Sanders has passed.
He skipped the Central Iowa Democrats Fall Barbecue, sending professor and socialist activist Cornel West instead. His ground staff is also different, consisting largely of college graduates and others who had shunned party activism and who aren’t familiar with the unwritten rules of Democratic Party protocol.
“The folks he has working for him are very good and make a lot of contact, but they’re not as professional or polished in a way that the other guys are,” said Dave Pollak, the Belknap County, New Hampshire, chair. “For example, they don’t always know your name or who they are talking to. They seem like the ideas that they’re carrying around are going to win the day more so than machine politics.”
Like President Obama before him, Mr. Sanders has been able to tap into and inspire college-age students and others who feel the Democratic Party hasn’t well represented them or their issues.
Party leaders say they appreciate the big crowds and enthusiasm Mr. Sanders attracts, but they wonder whether he’ll be able to turn those supporters out to vote — particularly in Iowa. Unlike an election, where voters show up for a few minutes at whatever time is convenient, Iowa’s caucuses require them to show up at a specific time and to stick around through speeches and caucus organizing — an investment that pays off for the best-organized campaigns.
“Here’s what’s hard for me: I don’t see a lot of Sanders supporters showing up at party events. He’s running his campaign outside the party apparatus, he’s not a party guy, and so they’re running their operation outside of that,” said Tom Hendersen, the Polk County chairman. “After our J-J dinner, most of his supporters left, so it’s hard to monitor them, it’s hard to engage with them. I don’t know if he can turn them out.
“With Obama it was different. Yes, his supporters were also young and new, but he ran his campaign through the mainline Democratic organization,” Mr. Henderson said. “He showed up to all of our events, he reached out to me a lot. That’s not the same with Sanders.”
Mr. Sanders may not have much choice in running largely outside of the party. Many party loyalists are enamored with Mrs. Clinton and already committed to her campaign, feeling it’s her turn to be the nominee, and will do anything to ensure that, some party activists say.
“[Mr. Sanders’] campaign has struggled from the getgo because the DNC has really been against them,” said Sen. Tony Bisignano, a Des Moines Democrat. “I think the chair of the DNC is a Clinton supporter, and the debates were limited for the purpose of Clinton to minimize opportunities for others to shine or for mistakes to be made. It’s been a Clinton race from the beginning.”
The Democratic National Committee says it supports all of the candidates in the race equally, and will support whomever the nominee is.
“We take the DNC’s neutrality in this race extremely seriously,” said Eric Walker, a DNC spokesman, in an emailed statement. “For the first time ever, all three of our major Presidential Primary campaigns have signed agreements to be a part of our voter file, and these campaigns are making investments to improve and build upon the program. And during our own debates and throughout the campaign, we make sure to highlight positives from all of our major candidates. The bottom line is that we’re preparing an infrastructure built to win in 2016, no matter who our Democratic nominee is.”
But even party leaders acknowledge Mr. Sanders may be feeling the rub from the party in little ways.
“I went to the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, and the order of the speakers was O’Malley, Sanders, then Clinton and, you know, you always end with the star,” said Joyce Weston, the Democratic chair in Grafton, New Hampshire. “In this state it’s a crapshoot who the star is, Hillary or Bernie. But it was an event put together by the party, and they put her on last. It’s subtle [bias], but it’s there.”
Mrs. Clinton holds a significant lead in polls in Iowa.
But Mr. Sanders does better in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary about a week after Iowa’s caucuses. Polling there is mixed, with Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders each holding leads, depending on the survey.
Plus, New Hampshire’s primary is “open,” meaning independents can vote, which could also boost Mr. Sanders if the voters he energizes participate.
“Bernie has attracted attention from voters who generally do not vote — people who ride out the elections from home, [are] not too much involved. They don’t want to be bothered by the whole scene and choose to stand back because something turns them off. So I think Bernie is reaching those people,” said Emily Jacobs, the Coos County, New Hampshire, chair. “Bernie’s campaign is trying to get everyone — independents and Republicans. He doesn’t do the Democratic dinners, the party workings — they have a different way of doing it. He’s [re-engaged] outside of the party.”
And if that’s what it takes to generate excitement within the Democratic Party come election year, so be it, some party members say.
“It’s not a bad thing to bring new people into the party and listen to the progressive message that he is spreading,” said Larry Hodgen, chairman of the Cedar County Democrats in Iowa. “He’s like John the Baptist running around in the wilderness telling us what will happen if we let this social inequity continue. He’s bringing more people into the party, getting more Americans involved in our democracy, and that’s a good thing.”