MoveOn gives Bernie Sanders key endorsement
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MoveOn gives Bernie Sanders key endorsement

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., participating in an Internet live stream discussion about putting families first in developing immigration policy at his campaign office in Washington, D.C., Dec. 7, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., participating in an Internet live stream discussion about putting families first in developing immigration policy at his campaign office in Washington, D.C., Dec. 7, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

UPDATE: This article was last updated on Tuesday at 2:43 p.m. EST to include findings from the Quinnipiac University poll.

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The liberal activist movement MoveOn.org endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, handing the Vermont senator important grassroots support in the early primary states.

Nearly 79 percent of 340,665 members casting votes selected Sanders, an Independent, over the other candidates for the Democratic nod, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former secretary of state who is the front-runner in national polls, and Martin O’Malley, a former Maryland governor.

The endorsement could boost Sanders, 74, ahead of the first primary states, where the Jewish lawmaker is competitive with Clinton, despite trailing her in national polls. A Quinnipiac University poll published Tuesday reported that Sanders is leading in Iowa, with 49 percent of likely caucus voters supporting him and 44 percent supporting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“MoveOn will mobilize in support of Sanders with initial focus on turning out 43,000 Iowa and 30,000 New Hampshire MoveOn members — early states where polling shows a neck-and-neck race just weeks out,” the organization said Tuesday in a statement.

Defeating Clinton in the early primaries could convert Sanders, a Social Democrat, from a long shot into a serious contender.

MoveOn was established in the late 1990s to push back against Republican attacks on President Bill Clinton for his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. It became a leading opponent on the left of the Iraq War in the early 2000s, and its first endorsee as president was Barack Obama in 2008.

Ilya Sheyman, the group’s executive director, analyzed comments made by members in the online voting and came up with five reasons Sanders was the overwhelming winner. Among them was his opposition in real time to the Iraq War. Clinton, then a senator from New York, supported the war, although she now says she regrets her vote.

Sheyman also cited Sanders’ support of the recent sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal between Iran and six major powers.

“Bernie Sanders has been a strong, consistent voice for the principle that war should always be a last resort,” Sheyman said. “He had the foresight to vote against authorizing the war in Iraq in 2002, was a strong supporter of the nuclear deal to prevent war with Iran, and has been a voice of reason against escalation in Syria and other conflicts around the world.”