Sanders is already putting more of an emphasis on his foreign-policy platform. Last Saturday, the senator kicked off a campaign event in Dubuque, Iowa, by calling for immediate action from Congress to prevent a war with Iran. He’s especially contrasted himself with Biden, his biggest 2020 rival, who, notably, did vote to support the Iraq War. The former vice president, Sanders argued in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Monday, “helped lead the effort for the war in Iraq, the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in the modern history of this country.” Voters should expect Sanders to stay on this point, his campaign has said: “Bernie Sanders has a proven record of fighting for the right thing at the right time—on the first instance, not on the second, third, fourth, or fifth try, as the case might be with Joe Biden,” Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, told Vanity Fair on Tuesday. “So yes, you’re going to hear a lot more about his Iraq vote from us.”
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Conveniently for Sanders, such an emphasis could find an audience in Iowa specifically, the first state to vote in the 2020 primary election, and where recent polling shows him with a narrow lead over his rivals. “Iowa has a history of being dovish,” Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist based in the state, told me. Voters there have elected anti-interventionist lawmakers to Congress in recent decades, including former Democratic Senator Tom Harkin and former Republican Representative Jim Leach. And in 2008, Barack Obama upset Hillary Clinton in the state by running, at least in part, on his vote against the Iraq War. “It’s been a recurring theme over the years [that] Iowans pay close attention to foreign policy,” Link said. “From that perspective, it’s smart for Sanders.”
Sanders’s anti-interventionism could also help him beyond Iowa: Polls show that the majority of Americans, including most Republicans, do not support another war in the Middle East. He could potentially pique the interest of a new swath of supporters, including younger Americans who have spent their formative years observing military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even Trump voters who supported the now-president for his own promise to get U.S. troops out of the Middle East. “[Trump] doesn’t have a rudder on these things; it’s whatever he’s feeling at the moment,” Link said. But Bernie “is crystal clear. If we were judging this contest on who has the most clarity on who they are and what their message is, Bernie wins.”
Yet it’s not totally crystal clear that Sanders will gain an advantage: A poll from FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos, released in September before the Soleimani strike, showed that very few Democrats are prioritizing foreign policy in choosing a candidate, and The Washington Post reported that Iowans haven’t been asking many questions about Iran at campaign events. It’s also possible that, if there is no further escalation after Iran retaliated with military strikes of its own on Tuesday, Sanders’s anti-interventionist stance may lose its salience. And Sanders isn’t the only candidate who sees the Iran conflict as a potential campaign boost, though in a different way. Biden has spent the last week promoting his own foreign-policy experience as vice president. “Biden’s been in the Situation Room before. Buttigieg has been shot at before,” Paul Rieckhoff, the host of the Angry Americans podcast and an Iraq War veteran, told me, noting the former mayor’s military experience. “Those are the kinds of things that are going to resonate with the American people.”
But with just three weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses and no obvious front-runner in the state, a new way for Sanders to distinguish himself from his rivals could be exactly what he needs to pull ahead. After all, Americans already know Sanders as the guy who advocates for universal health care and shouts about the billionaires. They may not have heard as much about Sanders the anti-war activist.