SPENCER, Iowa — Jane Sanders, the wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has had a grueling schedule, standing alongside her husband at his campaign rallies, and hosting events of her own, schmoozing with voters. Now, with the Iowa caucuses less than a week away, it’s crunch time.
“I do whatever Bernie needs,” she told The Huffington Post. “Mostly what I have been doing is staying by his side. Going with him, participating in these events.”
Her role extends far beyond simply being a supportive partner. She is also her husband of 27 years’ most trusted adviser and has led him to past political victories. With the exception of Bill Clinton, Jane Sanders may be the most politically experienced spouse in the 2016 cycle, even sharing an office with her husband at the campaign’s headquarters in Burlington, Vermont.
Sanders’ warm and personal approach to politics differentiates her from her husband, who is often completely focused on the issues.
“The yin and the yang — he and I balance each other,” Sanders said. “We have different approaches. I’m more social than he is, he is much more cerebral. He thinks things through, I feel things through.”
At her solo campaign appearances, she offers a more personal insight into her husband, who is something of a mystery because he rarely talks about himself on the trail.
“For this race, I’m able to just go out and speak my mind and tell people about him,” she said. “He’s not there, because then he’d interrupt and he’d scowl and say, ‘enough enough,’ because he doesn’t like to talk about himself.”
Sanders often tells crowds about how she was initially attracted to her husband’s ideas before she fell for the man, himself. She explains to voters how they met during his 1981 mayoral run in Burlington, when she was a community organizer.
When he talked about the issues, I felt like he embodied everything I believed in.
“When he talked about the issues, I felt like he embodied everything I believed in,” she explained to a crowd in Esterville, Iowa. “I had never spoken a word to him, but that moment on, I decided to work on his campaign.”
He won that election by 10 points, something Jane Sanders said has stuck with both of them, emphasizing the importance of every vote. She still reflects on her husband’s failed 1988 congressional run, in which he lost by three percentage points.
“People would say that they liked his ideas, but that he couldn’t win,” she explained to a crowd in Spencer, Iowa. “It’s that thinking that lost the election.”
Sanders suggested her husband’s candidacy is similar to that of President Barack Obama, who faced long odds against Hillary Clinton when he launched his presidential campaign in 2007, eventually winning Iowa, the nomination and the presidency.
“In Iowa, you lead the nation,” she said with conviction to a crowd in Storm Lake. “You showed courage when you supported Barack Obama and made it OK for everyone else to say, let’s give this guy another look.”
Jane Sanders, who has three children of her own from a previous relationship and is stepmother to her husband’s one, often tells voters that they have four kids and seven grandchildren. Crisscrossing the state, she talks how her husband would always put the interests of working families first, often rattling off his most recent accomplishments, how he has fought for social security and paved the way for an expansion of health care benefits for veterans.
Over the past year, Jane Sanders’ complete focus has shifted to her husband’s presidential run. She appears with him regularly on stage, waving to the crowd and embracing her husband, giving him a kiss on the cheek. His decision to run as a presidential candidate was not one that came easily.
“We would be walking down the streets, and people would be yelling, ‘Bernie run for president,’” she recalled. “I told him if you decide to run, I will be 100 percent behind you, but I’m not crazy about it.
They decided together that he would run after a veteran approached them one morning at breakfast and urged him to, she said. The man thanked her husband, telling him that his office helped him get his veterans’ benefits after 30 years.
“He was so sincere and so wonderful and the story was so touching,” Sanders said, her eyes welling up. “I just sat down and said, ‘OK, I give up. I think you do have to do it.’”
While her husband tends to draw thousands of millennials to his campaign rallies, Jane Sanders caters to a more middle-aged group, as her stories resonate with parents and grandparents.
“He’s the rock star, only one per family,” she said.
Sanders said the massive crowds that attend her husband’s rallies continue to astonish her. She recalls pulling into the parking lot of one of her husband’s campaign events during her first trip to Iowa and not believing what she saw.
“We were stunned,” she said. “All these cars, there’s a line of people. Are we competing with some other event? Phil, who was driving us — our longtime campaign person forever — he said, ‘No, I think that’s for you, Bernie.’”
Sanders admits the campaign trail can be challenging, especially adapting to all of the media attention, where her family is constantly put under a microscope.
“The personal attacks, as a wife, it bothers me,” she said. “I knew getting into it, that would be the case. It happened when he was mayor, it happened when he was a congressman, when he was a senator. I would always say, but that’s not true! He would say, ‘Jane, this is politics, you can’t let it get to you,’ so we don’t.”
On the campaign trail, Sanders has fielded multiple questions from supporters, asking what her role would be as the first lady.
With a background in schools, she could see herself focusing on education, children and families.
“She’s been a college president for a couple colleges in Vermont,” her son Dave Driscoll said during one of his mother’s solo events at a campaign office in Spencer. “She has run the gamut on education and working with children. I may be biased, but she is pretty good at it. We’d be lucky to have her in the White House, focusing on some of those issues.”
She said she tries not to look too far ahead, and focuses on winning Iowa.
“I’ve just been thinking about how much work there is to do, and what a difference Bernie can make as president,” she added. “My role is to support him in any way that I can.”
Watch HuffPost’s day on the trail with Jane Sanders above.