CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The closer the Democratic presidential race gets to the first votes of 2020 being cast here in the Iowa caucuses, the more the ghosts of the 2016 primary haunt the party.
Supporters of Sen. Bernard Sanders, who watched last time as the Democratic National Committee plotted to derail his insurgent bid, see many of the same dark forces at work again.
The DNC already has changed the debate rules, making it easier for billionaire Michael Bloomberg to be on the stage for the Nevada showdown — irking Sanders backers who also bristled at reports that DNC members are talking about other rules change to hinder Mr. Sanders should he be in the lead at this summer’s convention.
Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s curious timing in sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate, which has kept Mr. Sanders off the campaign trail for most of the last two weeks, strikes the Vermont independent senator’s supporters as suspect.
“It does raise question marks, and I don’t believe you have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe it,” said Dustin Menke, who came to hear Mr. Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a recent campaign rally in Perry.
“There are powers that are trying to sabotage his win again for the presidency, and it is because he has had the same message for the last 40 or 50 years,” the 42-year-old said. “That is why the establishment is afraid of him, because he is not going to back down.”
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Mr. Sanders surged in polling in January, seemingly grabbing leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states on the primary calendar, away from former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
To the Sanders camp, Mr. Biden is this year’s version of Hillary Clinton — the candidate party leaders backed in 2016. Emails released later showed the DNC actively worked against Mr. Sanders.
Mrs. Clinton has picked at that scab in recent weeks, saying nobody likes Mr. Sanders, calling him a failed “career politician” and blaming her loss partly on his supporters refusing to back her after she won the Democratic nomination in 2016. Long gone is the truce the two sides had appeared to strike earlier.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, campaigning in Iowa last week for Mr. Sanders while he was stuck in Washington for President Trump’s impeachment trial, joined in a round of boos at the mention of Mrs. Clinton.
“That’s all right. The haters will shut up on Monday when we win,” Ms. Tlaib said.
2016 to 2020
The Clinton-Sanders battle in the last campaign was the precursor to the bloodletting that has played out in the years since, as Democrats try to decide whether they’re the liberal party of Mrs. Clinton or the more socialist party of Mr. Sanders.
Clinton-style candidates helped the party win back control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections, but a number of Sanders-wing Democrats also managed to unseat incumbent Democrats, giving the left a bigger foothold.
Among them were Ms. Ocascio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ms. Tlaib — freshman lawmakers who now vie with Mrs. Pelosi for control of Congress’ agenda. The trio has campaigned for Mr. Sanders, as have Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
In Iowa, though, the story of 2018 was Clinton-wing Democrats who captured Republican seats. Reps. Abby Finkenhauer and Cindy Axne, who ousted incumbent Republicans, are backing Mr. Biden in Monday’s caucuses.
Mr. Sanders nearly won the Iowa caucuses in 2016 and battled with Mrs. Clinton all the way to the Democratic National Convention.
The Real Clear Politics average of polls gives him a 3 percentage-point lead, though the most recent survey, by CBS News/YouGov, showed the race tied between Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden at 25% each. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is third at 21% in that poll, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is in fourth at 16%.
Mr. Sanders’ surge has his backers fearing the party’s response.
“I look for them to pull the same stunts they did last time,” said Jim Tuel, an organic vegetable farmer from Spirit Lake.
Those fears came to fruition late last week when the DNC overhauled the qualifying criteria for future debates, removing the requirement that a candidate show grassroots fundraising prowess.
That could allow Mr. Bloomberg, who is using his own massive wealth to fund his campaign, to make the stage should he do well enough in Iowa or New Hampshire, or poll well enough in a series of upcoming surveys.
For Mr. Sanders’ camp, the party’s catering to a billionaire sends the wrong message.
“That’s the definition of a rigged system,” said Jeff Weaver, a senior Sanders adviser.
Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore fumed, accusing the DNC of opening the door for Mr. Bloomberg solely “because he has a [expletive] dollars.”
“Oh, they are so upset,” Mr. Moore bellowed at a recent campaign rally in the Des Moines suburbs. “They are, like, asking each other, ‘How the hell did this happen? Bernie wasn’t supposed to win.’”
On the ground, Mr. Sanders’ troops are using the party’s moves as motivation.
“We are fighting the corporate interests and Wall Street — those that want to buy the power and buy the tax breaks,” said Ja’Mal Green, a national Sanders surrogate. “We are fighting the Democratic Party who are doing everything to stop this movement.”
Mrs. Clinton’s return to the political scene is unsettling for the Sanders camp, and she has shown no reluctance to tear into the senator, whom she blames for contributing to her stunning Election Day loss to Mr. Trump.
“All the way up until the end, a lot of people highly identified with his campaign were urging people to vote third party, urging people not to vote,” Mrs. Clinton said Friday in an interview on the Your Primary Playlist podcast. “It had an impact.”
Some voters welcomed her critique, saying Mr. Sanders’ young activist supporters are loyal to him, not the Democratic Party. They worry he might play spoiler for the eventual nominee, just as they believe he did last time.
“Absolutely that can happen again,” said Caroline Fontenoy, who is backing Mr. Biden.
“He is not a uniter, he is a divider,” the 71-year-old said. “When you are 80 years old, you don’t change. I’m 70 years old. I don’t change. I mean, you just don’t change, and he is going to be pissed off.”
There may be something to those fears. Drake University in Des Moines conducted its usual mock caucus last week and Mr. Sanders did poorly, not even getting enough support in the initial balloting to be “viable” by picking up 15% of the vote.
Under caucus rules, his supporters had to try to win over others, join another candidate’s backers, or sit it out and go home. Some Sanders folks went home, according to reporters observing the goings-on.
Voters in Iowa suggest it’s a two-way street, and they aren’t ready to back Mr. Sanders, should he emerge their nominee.
Donna Cantrell said she would leave the top of her ballot blank in that case.
“I’ll vote for everyone else on the ballot, but I won’t vote for him for president,” Ms. Cantrell said. “Trump will tear him apart being such a socialist. He will tear him apart.”
• David Sherfinski contributed to this report.