Hillary Clinton was not able to knock out Sen. Bernie Sanders in Monday’s Iowa caucuses. Not that Sanders or his campaign were entertaining the thought of exiting the race anytime soon. But pulling off a safe, resounding win—perhaps one that beat expectations, even—would have helped Clinton quell the insurgency before it could snowball into something enduring. Instead, Clinton appears to have taken the Iowa crown by a teensy 0.3-percent margin.
Clinton staved off an embarrassing loss. Unfortunately for her, she may have an embarrassing loss facing her in one week’s time. Though that New Hampshire loss has been baked into expectations for some weeks now, it will set off a difficult 11-day period that tests the strength of her Western and Southern firewalls.
Sanders right now enjoys an 18–percentage point lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average of New Hampshire. Having just spent 10 days in New Hampshire, I can attest that this polling support is not illusory. Barring some sensational gaffe from Sanders, a supremely on-message candidate who doesn’t offer a lot of extraneous currency, that support is unlikely to flip dramatically to the former secretary of state—especially after the “virtual tie” in Iowa.
Clinton’s team will spin that pending result like nobody’s business. They will attempt to set their expectations at roughly 1 percent of the vote and likely declare victory once it becomes clear they’ve hit 30. They will argue—have been arguing, are arguing—that Sanders’ support is overblown because New Hampshire borders his home state Vermont and matches its crunchy white liberal demographic.
Caveats notwithstanding, the problem for Clinton is that she will have to spend the next 11 days as a loser, and probably a significant loser, until the Nevada caucuses. There are people out there—perhaps you know them?—who have not been paying much attention to the election thus far and are only beginning to tune in now. People who might vaguely be aware of Sanders but also don’t expect him to win anything against Clinton. For 11 days, the story, just as people are tuning in, could be that Clinton barely squeaked by Sanders in the first state and then was blown out in the second state.
Winning makes a candidate seem viable, and once a candidate is deemed viable, plenty of votes could flip. An Iowa victory would have been a real prize for Sanders in that regard, but he did well enough to at least show how competitive he is.
Obama’s Iowa victory did much to build his impression as a viable alternative to Clinton. “Voters prefer to back a winner,” the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim wrote yesterday, “and candidates appear more attractive the more likely they are to win.” The more viable Obama appeared to be, the more he dug into Clinton’s national lead—a form of polling that begins to matter more as we approach multiprimary voting days for which the campaign’s resources are spread thinner.
If Sanders pulls off the easy victory he’s expected to have in New Hampshire, the numbers to watch over those 11 days—and the numbers that will decide the nominee—are preferences among black and Latino voters. These are the keys not just to Nevada and South Carolina but through the Southern states as well. Those 11 days will be Sanders’ best shot of drawing down Clinton’s extremely lopsided margins.
Is Sanders likely to flip Clinton’s advantages? No. But there’s a spate of punditry out there that’s already begun to, shall we say, pat Sanders on the head and give him a sort of participation trophy, suggesting that his run has simply been delightful for the Democratic Party, for the left, and for young people, and boy oh boy does he have so much to be proud of in what he’s achieved. The subtext of this punditry is: Now get out of the way.
This is patronizing, but it also it misreads Sanders and his campaign. He did not enter the race, and he did not hire top-tier consultants like Tad Devine, just to get his issues out there and push Clinton to the left. He read the mood of the Democratic electorate this cycle as one that could break toward a Sanders nomination. He really does want to win, and he should be expected to exhaust all of his resources and strategic opportunities to do so. He’s made a lot of progress so far. Don’t expect him to cash out.