AMES, Iowa – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders narrowly finished second this winter in the state’s Democratic caucuses, then left Iowa in a February snowstorm as a contender. He returned Saturday on a warm autumn day to Iowa State University as a surrogate, offering his young, fervent supporters a more difficult pitch -- vote for Hillary Clinton.
Some of his devotees remain unconvinced, even those the Clinton campaign selected to speak at this Clinton campaign event.
“She doesn't care about us. Voting for a lesser of two evils, there's no point,” Kaleb Van Fosson, a sophomore and Sanders supporter, said to the small crowd.
After drawing light applause, Clinton campaign staff quickly escorted Van Fosson from the stage, as he criticized Clinton for her ties to financial institutions.
“I got a call the other day asking me if I wanted to speak for Hillary, basically they wanted to use me like a puppet,” Van Fosson told Fox News. “Trump’s not any better, but Hillary Clinton is still terrible.”
Others in attendance agreed with Van Fosson, though most in the crowd appeared supportive of the Democratic nominee.
"He's made it evidently clear that Hillary Clinton is the right choice and over the summer,” said Devon Graham, a local Sanders supporter. “I went fully behind Hillary and I'm really excited for her as a candidate but also excited that Bernie is supporting her as well.”
Sanders used much of his speech to bring attention to his signature issues -- corporate oversight, climate change and income inequality. In endorsing Clinton, he acknowledged those who dislike both nominees.
“Get beyond personality,” he told the crowd. “Alright, you don’t like Hillary Clinton, you don’t like Donald Trump fine. You like yourselves. I hope so, if that means taking a hard look at the issues the candidates stand for. We’re not running here for class president of the local high school. This is not a popularity contest. We are electing the most powerful individual in the world.”
Yet many still see Clinton’s positions as too centrist and her remarks to Wall Street firms, provided by WikiLeaks, too deferential to financial firms’ interests.
“This is home of rural populism and it manifests in very different ways on theft and the right,” said Rachel Caufield, an associate professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines.
“On the left if manifests as a distrust of corporations and economic power. And Hillary Clinton’s message isn’t resonating with those folks in the same way that say Barack Obama’s did. You still have a lot of those folks who were diehard Bernie supporters who will continue to be Bernie supporters and they’re not sure that Hillary Clinton embraces some of the ideological positions that they want to see in their Democratic Party.”
Clinton trails Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, in Iowa by less than 3percentage points, according to an average of polls provided by Real Clear Politics.
The latest state-provided returns show Iowa Democrats and Republicans have submitted fewer absentee ballots than they did by the same point in 2012. Thus far, Republicans have returned a larger share of ballots, and Democrats a smaller percentage than they did in the last presidential election year.
As of Friday, 238,029 Democrats and 196,611 Republicans had submitted ballots, according to the Iowa secretary of state.
While the Clinton campaign relies on surrogates such as Sanders and the Obamas to coax their supporters to the polls, Clinton herself maintains a stead attack on her opponent.
“Among most Democrats, the strongest case she’s making right now is that she’s not Donald Trump,” Caufield said.
Nor is she Sanders.
“I’ve been to eight of his last 12 events, and the Bernie merchandise sells a lot better than the Hillary,” said Daniel Richards, a campaign merchandise salesman from Springfield Illinois, as he unloaded a stack of Sanders T-shirts from his van.
“This was the number one seller at the Democratic convention,” Richards also said as he presented a green “It’s always Bernie in Philadelphia” shirt.