The Slatest

Bernie Sanders Closes the Gap in Iowa

Calling it: Bernie Sanders speaks on Aug. 16, 2015, in Eldridge, Iowa.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

There’s one more reason to worry in Clinton-land. A new Iowa poll out Thursday of likely Democratic caucus-goers shows Bernie Sanders with a narrow lead over Hillary Clinton, the first time the progressive firebrand has bested his establishment rival in a Hawkeye State survey.

Sanders leads Clinton, 41 percent to 40 percent, in the Quinnipiac survey, with Joe Biden in distant third place with 12 percent. Bernie’s 1-point lead on Hillary is well within the poll’s margin of error—but the statistical tie is a far cry from the 19-point lead Clinton had in the same Iowa poll two months ago.

It’s a single survey, and the usual caveats apply. Still, it’s clear that Sanders is surging, both in Iowa and elsewhere. According to RealClearPolitics’ rolling averages, Clinton’s lead on Sanders in Iowa has fallen from roughly 50 points in June to 11 points today. In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Sanders has gone from down 37 points to up 8 over that same time. Hillary can take solace in her 25-point lead on Sanders nationally—but that cushion would look a whole lot more comfortable if it weren’t half the size of what it was three months ago.

Polls, of course, are only part of the story. Clinton still has plenty going for her—most notably her massive fundraising and organizational advantages over Sanders. Hillary remains the overwhelming favorite to win her party’s nomination next summer, and as long as she has the backing of the Democratic establishment, that’s unlikely to change. Still, it’s becoming apparent that at least a few of those same party power brokers who are responsible for Clinton’s air of inevitability have felt it necessary to imagine Biden, John Kerry, or Al Gore dressing up as a white knight in the event that Clinton’s self-inflicted email wounds prove fatal.

A late entry from Biden remains uncertain, and the speculation about Kerry and Gore remains of the break-in-case-of-emergency variety. But while Team Hillary knows that, such chatter appears to have them more than a little flustered. In a matter of weeks, her camp has gone from striking a nothing-to-worry-about-here power pose to publicly (and awkwardly) promising a campaign reboot aimed at reassuring her allies that the campaign isn’t ignoring the obvious.

For Sanders, meanwhile, his polling surge changes the question from whether he can compete in the early nominating states to whether he can win them. Given the upstart nature of his campaign, Sanders needs a strong start much more than Clinton does. Hillary could survive an early loss or two—as Mitt Romney did in 2012—but Bernie doesn’t have that same margin of error. With five months to go before the Iowa caucuses, Sanders remains a long shot. But the past few months have given his backers plenty of reasons to hope—and Clinton’s allies even more reasons to fret.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.