As one comedian observed online, if Hillary Clinton loses the Iowa caucus February 1 to an underdog, it will be the most shocking thing that’s happened — since it happened eight years ago.
In 2008, the pundit class was united in the opinion that Clinton was clearly next in line for the Democratic nomination and that Illinois senator Barack Obama was too young and too liberal. Worse, many figured mainstream America wasn’t ready for a half-black man with a foreign name and an African father to serve as commander in chief. Obama went on to win the Iowa caucus, get the nomination and serve two terms as president.
Now comes Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator challenging Clinton in the primaries. Some say he doesn’t have enough establishment support to topple such a political titan, and that his choice to describe himself as a democratic socialist relegates him to the periphery.
There’s also another matter: He’s Jewish. No, he’s not separating his meat and dairy and canceling Friday night campaign events to go daven, but he’s the living image of a feisty New York Jew. Talk of his aggressive speaking style and false claims about his supposed dual citizenship are all hints that, to many gentile voters, he is still an ethnic “other.”
This won’t be too much of a problem for him in New York or Massachusetts, but Iowa votes first. And, well, it’s kind of hard to picture Sanders engaging in a classic pie-eating contest, right? A few polls say he’s closing in on Clinton, but for his supporters, the question looms: Is the corn-fed, Midwestern state ready for an East Coast Jew?
Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank, a Rhode Island native who came to Des Moines’s Tifereth Israel Synagogue six and half years ago, believes Iowa is misunderstood. Many of his congregants are voting for Sanders because of “what he believes, not because he’s Jewish,” the rabbi said. He noted that the state is, on the whole, more progressive than people think. Fighting hunger is a big activist cause for members of his congregation — and let’s not forget that Iowa was among the first states to recognize same-sex marriage.
Rabbi David Kaufman of Temple B’nai Jeshurun, also in Des Moines, said he believed that the race would be close and that Sanders would attract many of Iowa’s young voters, who are concerned with the rising costs of health care and the burden of student loans.
“There hasn’t been much discussion about him being a Jew,” Kaufman said. “Iowans care about policy. And they are certainly giving Sanders a chance.”
Bill Barclay, a retiree from Oak Park, Illinois, went door-to-door volunteering for the Sanders campaign in Davenport, Iowa, and said that the topics of socialism and religion weren’t mentioned. Above all, he found that even among conservative voters, people seemed to appreciate that Sanders is consistent and isn’t maneuvering his policy around the most recent polling. “He’s going to reach across some divisions that are not normally bridged,” Barclay said.
Whether you like Sanders or not, a win for a Jew in the first contest in a presidential race would be historic, the same way a Hillary Clinton win would be meaningful for women, and the same way two Obama administrations have been momentous for African Americans. But what a cynical American must appreciate is that the nation’s heartland may very well decide between these candidates on their merits.
It’s not a new accusation that the American pundit class is too ensconced in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and even liberals, despite political devotion to more equality, tend to write off the heartland as culturally provincial and homogenous. But these places are really more politically multi-varied than popular logic holds. Plus, there’s a healthy list of Jewish progressive lawmakers, current and past, from the Midwest — Al Franken, Russ Feingold and the late Paul Wellstone, just to name a few.
There’s also a general overestimation of how much mainstream America obsesses about a religious litmus test in presidential races. For some time, it’s been hard to imagine the nation rallying for a non-Protestant, but the country is ready to depart from this mythology.
After all, Republican extremists accused President Obama of lying about his religion and the tactic failed. When John Kerry ran for president in 2004, the complaint from his detractors was that he wasn’t faithful enough to Catholic law, a far cry from the anti-papism that haunted John F. Kennedy. Donald Trump is unapologetically perfunctory in his nods to Christianity, and he stays in the lead on the Republican side. George W. Bush may have won the Electoral College in 2000, but the popular vote went with Al Gore and his observant Jewish running mate, Joe Lieberman.
Sanders may very well lose in Iowa, but he might lose by a small margin, which would be enough to embolden his supporters and scare the Clinton campaign. And if that happens, it won’t just be a told-you-so moment for Sanders to impart to those who wrote him off last year; it will also force a great many of us to confront our own prejudices about our fellow Americans.
Ari Paul is a journalist in New York City who has covered politics for The Nation, The Guardian, VICE News, In These Times, the New York Observer, The Brooklyn Rail and many other outlets.