CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Fans danced gleefully to music while guzzling beer. Smiles abounded and deafening cheers arose without warning. And, in the restroom, someone was smoking what smelled like marijuana.
Yes, it was a concert. Yes, it was a party.
But it was also a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the critical early voting state of Iowa, where Democrats will hold their first-in-the-nation caucuses in less than 48 hours.
The massive rally — the Sanders campaign said 3,000 people were in attendance — underscores the groundswell of support, especially from young voters, that Sanders has received during his 2020 presidential run and suggests he’s in prime position for a strong finish in Monday night’s caucuses.
The rally featured live music — and later on, a full set by Grammy-award-winning indie rock group Vampire Weekend — and lengthy introductions from filmmaker Michael Moore, Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, Mark Pocan, of Wisconsin, and Pramila Jayapal, of Washington, and by activist Cornel West.
Sanders, who was introduced by his wife, Jane, was greeted with a standing ovation, as people chanted his name.
“We're not only going to win here in Iowa, we're not only going to win the Democratic nomination, but we are going to defeat this dangerous president,” he said, prompting screaming and applause.
Sanders fans filled the floor and the first level at the U.S. Cellular Center in downtown Cedar Rapids, where the concessions were open and individual vendors walked around selling beer and bottled water. The men’s restroom on the floor level had the distinct odor of marijuana smoke.
“It’s not often you see something like this in politics,” said Jason Bermel, 34, a Trader Joe’s employee who drove to the event from Hills, Iowa, about 30 miles away.
“It was electric. It makes you feel good to be part of something like this,” Bermel said. “You just don’t see this kind of thing with other candidates who are running.”
In fact, the 3,000 people the Sanders campaign said attended dwarfs the numbers provided by rival campaigns for their own Saturday events. By comparison, the attendance numbers sent by the campaigns for former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg for events on Saturday ranged from 158 to more than 700.
Among Democrats running for their party’s presidential nomination, Sanders has emerged as the frontrunner in Iowa — albeit narrowly. The latest RealClearPolitics average of recent polling from the Hawkeye State shows the Vermont senator with 23.8 percent support, compared with 20.2 percent for Biden and 15.8 percent for Pete Buttigieg.
Sanders’ ability to draw large crowds in Iowa with rock music and notable opening speakers isn’t new. He held a similar event right before the 2016 caucuses that also featured Vampire Weekend and West.
But some politics watchers have warned that Sanders’ ability to draw hordes of young people to events does not necessarily mean they will turn out to caucus.
Some at Saturday night's rally felt differently.
Stephen Meyer, 33, from nearby Marion, Iowa, said he’s “definitely going to caucus” for Sanders.
Meyer added that he was a "big fan" of the "unbelievable amount of energy here tonight."
Liam McInroy, 21, who drove two hours from Des Moines, where he is a college student, also vowed to caucus, adding that he would bring “all of my friends along, and my friend’s friends.”
People much older than McInroy also attended the event, and many said they, too, would be caucusing for Sanders.
“He’s for the people. He cares about the young and the old. He’s a champion for change,” said Evelyn Smith, 60, from Maquoketa, about 50 miles east of Cedar Rapids.
As for the loud music, the booze and the festive atmosphere, Smith said she didn’t mind at all.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “Totally awesome.”