STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some people celebrated the holiday last night by attending a political rally for a presidential candidate.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
BERNIE SANDERS: Happy New Year.
INSKEEP: There he is, the unmistakable voice of Larry David. Wait, wait. No, no - Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders greeting a crowd in Des Moines last night with the Iowa caucuses just one month from today. NPR's Sarah McCammon was there at his New Year's Eve event.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning Steve.
INSKEEP: What was it like?
MCCAMMON: Well, you know, it wasn't your typical New Year's Eve event. It was advertised, for one thing, as ending at 9 o'clock and didn't really even go quite that late so...
INSKEEP: Icelandic new year, just a few times zones to the east.
MCCAMMON: Exactly. But I think by design it was kind of a pre-party for most people and a chance for, you know, the Bernie Sanders campaign to get Iowans together, get their contact information, remind them to caucus. And it really showed, Steve, that even on a big holiday night, Bernie Sanders can draw a crowd. I mean, there were easily over a thousand people of all ages, and the overflow room itself was overflowing.
INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned the contact information. It's a reminder that this is an organizing event. People are trying to draw their supporters out and make use of them later. So what'd Sanders say to this crowd?
MCCAMMON: Well, he just spoke for a few minutes - basically a version of his stump speech focusing on income inequality, and then he repeated that for the overflow crowd. He reminded them that Iowans have a chance in a month to make a big statement about where this race is headed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SANDERS: We together have an opportunity to make 2016 a year that history will long remember.
SANDERS: We have the opportunity, and you here in Iowa have an extraordinary role to play in that process.
MCCAMMON: And so Sanders told the crowd, you know, he needs them to help him make a strong showing here in Iowa's Democratic caucuses and then he needs help in the early states that follow. And he says that would send a message to Washington that the government has to represent everyone and not just, as he often says, a handful of billionaires.
INSKEEP: Granting that Sanders is far behind Hillary Clinton in national polls, how's he doing in Iowa and the other early states?
MCCAMMON: He does face a big challenge, especially here in Iowa, from Hillary Clinton. She's well-organized, polling double digits ahead in this state. So Sanders needs to at least to make a strong showing. You know, Steve, the Iowa caucuses aren't just about winning. They're also about expectations. So doing better than expected could build momentum leading into New Hampshire, where he has a better shot. And beating her would be a big upset like it was in 2008 when Barack Obama beat Clinton. If you talk to Sanders supporters here, that's what they're expecting. Shawn Head is one I talked to last night. He's 32. He lives in Pleasant Hill.
SHAWN HEAD: I think there will be a surprise because if you look back in 2008, Obama wasn't supposed to get that. It was supposed to be Hillary here, and he snuck it out. And I think we're headed in the same direction. There's a lot more enthusiasm on the Bernie side than the Clinton side.
MCCAMMON: And that really began here in Iowa. I should point out though that the Clinton campaign has learned from that experience. They're better organized in Iowa and beyond this time, and she is the favorite by a lot of the Democratic establishment.
INSKEEP: And sure, enthusiasm is important, but that organization you mentioned is important too.
MCCAMMON: Yeah, and the campaign here and Iowa are really focusing on turning out new voters, younger voters - especially the under 25 set. You know, Bernie Sanders is popular with young voters, and those younger voters couldn't even vote - many of them - when Obama was first elected. They're also working on working-class voters. Sanders has been, you know, leading in the small number of - in the number of small donors that are giving to his campaign, and that's seen as a sign of his grassroots strength here.
INSKEEP: One other thing to ask about, Sarah McCammon. What were some of the Republicans doing on New Year's Eve?
MCCAMMON: Well, it was not quite the celebratory mood I suspect, for Ben Carson's campaign. Two top staffers stepped down - his campaign manager and his communications director. They were quickly replaced. This was not a huge shock. Carson himself had said recently changes were coming. But, you know, it's not a great sign just a month before Iowans vote, and it comes amid reports of ongoing tensions in the campaign and questions about Carson's grasp of things like foreign policy.
INSKEEP: Sarah, thanks very much.
MCCAMMON: Thank you.
INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon.
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