“That’s what Bernie Sanders is asking people to do when he talks about a movement that needs to be bigger than just getting him into office,” Ellerbroeck said. “If you’ve ever been here in March after a caucus, all the serotonin has left the state,” he added. “There’s vacuum of energy and purpose—but there are still people getting evicted.”
Other DSA members, though, fundamentally disagree with the Iowa chapters’ approach. They argue that the state’s first-in-the-nation contest makes local chapters uniquely positioned to help Sanders win the Democratic nomination. After all, the Vermont senator only lost by 0.25 percent to Hillary Clinton in 2016—the closest margin in the history of the Iowa Caucus. Support from local DSAers, members argue, will be crucial.
“People are more tuned into politics during presidential elections than at any other point in their lives,” Michael Esealuka, the 26-year-old co-chair of the New Orleans DSA chapter, told me. She respects that individual chapters can make their own decisions, she said, but not joining DSA for Bernie is the wrong one. “We have a rare opportunity to have an out-and-proud socialist front-runner. We need to be running with this opportunity.”
By not campaigning for Sanders, some said, Iowa chapters are missing an opportunity to attract new members to the group. “If they could take some credit for flipping [Iowa] to Bernie, they would get so many Bernie Sanders supporters calling them up,” says John, a DSA member from a chapter in a metropolitan area who asked not to be further identified in order to speak candidly. John told me that “the majority of DSA” is frustrated with Iowa chapters’ approach to the presidential election. He also doesn’t understand their reluctance to participate in the caucus system; all electoral politics is “unfair” and “corrupted by money,” he told me, echoing Sanders’s own language on the stump. “We’ve got to fight on that terrain, though. If we don’t, we risk becoming irrelevant.”
Campaigning for Sanders, by definition, means campaigning for everything he stands for—from Medicare for All to building working-class power, members said. “Bernie connects all of these other things,” Megan Svoboda, the chair of the DSA for Bernie campaign and a member of the DSA’s National Political Committee, told me. The national organization would never tell local chapters what to do, she added, but “we’re hopeful people will be working on Bernie.”
Although Sanders has been a top candidate since he entered the Democratic presidential primary in March, he still hasn’t managed to pull ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden nationally. But he’s polling better relative to Biden in Iowa.
The February caucus could be extremely close, and while the internal debate over how best to grow the socialist movement is happening, some members fear that the chance to do so might be slipping away.
“The Bernie campaign is building a socialist political culture in America,” John said. Sanders “presents us with a very good tactical opportunity and we need to take advantage of it.”