On Friday night in Iowa City, about 800 people showed up to an auditorium at the University of Iowa for a Bernie Sanders presidential campaign event that Sanders had to miss. The latest polls gave him a slight lead in the Democratic primary, and the next morning they would give him an even bigger lead, but the senator couldn’t be there to take advantage of it. He was stuck in Washington, D.C., forced to sit in judgement of President Donald Trump, along with three of his other Senate colleagues who are also running for the Democratic nomination. Tonight, the task of wooing the voters who will decide the first contest in what is arguably the most consequential presidential election in U.S. history would have to go to someone else.

Early in the evening, Sanders called in to thank the crowd and give a short stump speech. His supporters giggled at the same awkward pauses and crosstalk that come with calling a relative on speaker phone. Filmmaker Michael Moore was next. He did affectionate impersonations of Sanders and issued dire warnings about what four more years of Trump could bring. The crowd was primed for the headliner, New York City Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

She began with a story about a visit to the doctor three months before she won the primary race that would lead her to becoming one of the most recognized public figures in the world. A server at the time, she had no health insurance, so she brought cash. After getting a physical, Ocasio-Cortez said she was told that she still needed some blood tests, and that those tests would cost more money.

“I sat in the room with my doctor, and I just started to weep,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I had just showed up to the doctor with a bag of cash to be told that I needed something that I couldn’t afford, so that I couldn’t know if there was something wrong with me or not.”

Ocasio-Cortez spoke slowly and deliberately; the auditorium was silent.

“In that moment, I felt ridiculous, I felt embarrassed, I felt humiliated. What is someone like that doing running for office? That’s the exact opposite of power,” she recounted.

She was given a clean bill of health after getting tested at a free clinic. But not before she had spent hours there with “people that didn’t look like they needed to go to a free clinic at all.”

“Even though everything physically was all right,” she said, “that system is not all right.”

The room erupted in applause. Ocasio-Cortez hadn’t mentioned Bernie Sanders once in her entire 20-minute speech.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks to the crowd at a rally for Bernie Sanders in Iowa City, Iowa, on January 24th.

AOC is not so much a campaign surrogate for Sanders as she is living proof that the mechanisms of entrenched power can be replaced by and with regular Americans. Who would know better than the 28-year-old service worker who defeated the fourth-most powerful Democrat in Congress?

“She is my president as far as I’m concerned,” said Jules Bacon, 42, who drove 30 miles from Grinnell, Iowa to see Ocasio-Cortez speak in Marshalltown, Iowa on Saturday. “She’s really one of the only politicians out there who I regularly listen to, and I want to hear her interpretation of what’s going on. I think she speaks to issues in ways that make a lot of sense to me.”

Unlike other campaign surrogates (Amy Klobuchar touted the gold medal-winning coach of the 2018 U.S. men’s curling team) AOC is a big deal, drawing both voters who are on the fence and staunch supporters of other candidates.

Dev Jeev Padavath, 21, said he isn’t backing Sanders in next week’s caucuses, unlike the majority of Iowa Democrats under 30. Padavath, a junior at Iowa State University majoring in supply chain management, wore an Andrew Yang T-shirt to Sanders’ campaign event in Ames on Saturday night. “I’m not a big Bernie supporter,” he said. “I just wanted to see AOC.”

Padavath said he thought she was “a lot different from what I’ve seen on TV. I feel like TV doesn’t do her justice,” noting that the mainstream media makes her sound “shrill.”

“I don’t agree with a lot of her views, but to [get] where she’s gotten, that’s impressive,” he said.

If Sanders’s typical stump speech ticks off the specific things he will do once he wins the election— Medicare for all, cancelling student debt, free college tuition, cutting the defense budget, abolishing ICE, a Green New Deal—Ocasio-Cortez lays out what needs to happen first. Organizing. Knocking on doors. Telling fellow Iowans they must come out on February 3rd with as many friends and family as they can to caucus for Sanders.

All the other candidates are doing this too, of course. The Sanders campaign claims to have made 6 million phone calls and knocked on “hundreds of thousands” of doors in Iowa.

At Sanders’s headquarters in Cedar Rapids on Saturday morning, Ocasio-Cortez warmed up a few dozen campaign volunteers before they went out to canvas. The office is in a squat building across from a tanning salon, with drop ceilings and a non-functioning fireplace (“Feel the Bern but don’t start a fire,” a worker cautioned). The latest poll results were taped to the wall next to the entrance. People sleepily munched on bad Panera bagels.

“There’s so much noise in politics. Lots of people talking on TV who have probably never knocked a door in their life, talking about what will work and what won’t work,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I never learned more about anything than when I would go out and knock doors and hear about people’s experiences firsthand.”

Convincing Iowans to caucus is different than asking New Yorkers to vote in a primary. The caucuses require you to show up and physically arrange yourself according to who you support, in a room full of people you know. In 2016, only one in four registered Democrats participated, though the refrain is that more people will turn out this year. “Iowans take their caucus responsibility very seriously” is a phrase I heard four or five times in 48 hours.

“It takes a lot to get someone to show up,” said Eriq Brown, a 32-year-old who drove from Des Moines to Cedar Rapids to canvas. “It’s a much different thing to just say, oh come out and vote and you can go home and stay anonymous. No, we’re asking you to come out and expose yourselves in front of your neighbors.”

An hour later, Bruce Wexler, 75, and Steve Perell, 72, are packed into a tiny rental car, driving to an assigned neighborhood to knock on doors for Sanders.

Both volunteers are native New Yorkers. Wexler grew up in Brooklyn and later moved to Jackson Heights (“WOO! JACKSON HEIGHTS!” he screamed when Ocasio-Cortez mentioned her home neighborhood, eliciting more cheers), Perell is from the Bronx. The two now live across the street from each other in Palm Beach county, Florida. They bonded over their love of the Mets and Al Jolson, and booked their flight to Iowa a month ago.

“I’ve always wanted to live in a Bernie world,” Perell said. “I was a teenager in the Kennedy years, and I just had this vision for America that what Bernie’s standing for is what I want America to be.”

Bruce Wexler rings a door bell while canvasing for Bernie Sanders in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on January 25th.

Their assignment is Lincolnway Village, a neighborhood in Cedar Rapids that is overwhelmingly white and solidly middle class, like Iowa itself. The men walk gingerly over icy sidewalks. Wexler is wearing a thin Brooklyn Cyclones coat and baseball hat. A frigid breeze blows a massive windmill behind the cul-de-sac. “I was prepared for cold, sure, it’s Iowa,” Wexler said, not very convincingly. “But not this ice.”

The two approach Shawn McCartt, who is shoveling his driveway. They let him rant a little after mentioning they’re asking him to support Sanders.

“What I hear is that he wants to give the poor people money. Women, you know, should be getting more tax credits than men, shit like that, I don’t like hearing it,” McCartt said.

“Well, I haven’t heard that,” Wexler responded. McCartt tells them he’s a member of the United Auto Workers, and Wexler finds an opening.

“You know that Bernie fights for unions all the time,” Wexler said.

“Like I said, I’m independent, I’m undecided, and I’ll keep my mind open,” McCartt said, softening a little bit. “It’s just that I really haven’t heard anybody talk about the middle class yet.”

Wexler chuckles. “I believe Bernie—he may talk in his sleep about the middle class! He doesn’t really talk about anything else but the middle or so-called working class.”

Saturday afternoon in a mostly-empty Marshalltown diner, a group of friends sat around a table, picked at a brownie, and talked frankly about why Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez don’t appeal to them.

“I worry about celebrities a little bit, and she feels like a celebrity to me,” said Steve Carignan, 56, who supported Sanders in 2016 when the senator lost Iowa to Hillary Clinton by just four tenths of a precent. But Carignan now says he’s looking for something less “extreme.”

“[Ocasio-Cortez] gets a lot of headlines, she gets a lot of attention, she’s a great spokesperson—great. But I’m not sure she’s a governor.”

Anne Taylor, 50, nodded her head.

“So our entire system is rotted from the inside, that would be my point with supporting Bernie, or not supporting Bernie, or Elizabeth Warren,” Taylor said. But while she agrees with their diagnosis, she differs in the remedy.

“Someone who is that polarizing, as those two figures, and even Donald Trump, definitely not going to get anything done. So I always feel someone who is more middle and centrist might be able to, but quite frankly with the division in the country, no one that centrist is ever going to be elected.” The fact that Sanders and Warren have attacked candidates for their lack of ambition, for their failure to accommodate other views, troubles her.

“Right now, it turns me off. A lot of that is what turns me off about Bernie Sanders,” Taylor said.

The table laughed when I asked about Michael Bloomberg.

“I think he’s a bag of money. I think that’s all he is,” said Dawn Taylor, Anne’s sister. “When he came out a couple weeks ago and said that even if he doesn’t win the nomination he’ll put his money towards defeating Trump, that’s the best thing he can offer this campaign season. If he sticks to that, that’s great.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks to the crowd in Ames, Iowa, on January 25th.

In Iowa, Ocasio-Cortez directly and frequently addressed the notion that Sanders’s campaign is too radical for these kinds of voters who want to “get things done.”

“Tinkering around the edges might sometimes feel like the most politically feasible thing to do, but people will continue to suffer if we don’t radically reimagine our systems,” she told the standing-room-only crowd in Ames on Saturday night. “Not only that, but it’s popular. It is popular,” she said to cheers, her very presence proving her point.

She pointed out that other forces are less hesitant to put their thumbs on the scales, and are already remaking society for their benefit.

“For so long true democracy has been slipping away, because it’s been purchased by the powerful. But we have an opportunity now, this year, to not only push back on creeping authoritarianism in the White House, but replace it with something better,” she said.

“I live in New York City, the rates of people that are experiencing homelessness, are some of the highest rates since the Great Depression, yet one in every four luxury apartments go unsold,” Ocasio-Cortez said. As she spoke she paced the stage. Her hands were still when she paused for effect. She wasn’t reading off a piece of paper.

“That juxtaposition, of some of the largest excess, next to some of the worst depravity, is not an accident,” she said. “It is systemic. It’s the natural outcome of our systems. We have to change our systems, we have no choice.”

Ocasio-Cortez added, “I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s gonna be hard.”