So Hillary Clinton appears to have eked out an incredibly tight victory in Iowa last night, leading Bernie Sanders by 49.8 to 49.6 with 100 percent of precincts counted. For purposes of the delegate count, her victory is not meaningful — as Sanders rightly put it, this was a “virtual tie.” The three main takeaways from the outcome:
1) Hillary Clinton is probably still the heavy favorite to win the nomination, given the demographics in upcoming states. That is to say, Sanders’s near-win probably does not shift the broader dynamics of the overall nominating contest in a very significant way.
2) Sanders’s showing is a genuine and significant achievement. Sanders has definitely tapped into something very real that Clinton — and Democrats — have a lot to learn from, not just for the primary contests to come, but for the general election as well, presuming Clinton ends up as the nominee. Sanders’s massive victory among young voters raises real questions about her ability to excite and engage them that will have to be seriously addressed.
3) Sanders’s stiff challenge to Clinton — and this will be true even if it drags on for a long time, which looks very possible — could have some positive effects, both for her and for the party overall. It’s immeasurably improved the quality of the Dem debate; forced Clinton out of her comfort zone and gotten her to embrace more ambitious economic proposals than her instincts might otherwise have dictated; may be engaging more young voters in the process; and could even ultimately impact the convention in a positive way for Democrats.
Top Democrats tell me that the closeness of the contest contains several lessons. One is that Sanders appears to be connecting more effectively than Clinton with how certain voter groups feel about the economy and the country’s future, whereas Clinton has been focused more on offering solutions rather than giving voice to their concerns.
“He speaks to what so many feel,” David Axelrod, a top strategist to Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns, tells me. “Which is this sense of a changing economy, in which success is kind of a closely held asset, and the fundamental premise that we grew up with — that if you work hard you can get ahead — seems like a cliche that’s not true.”
“He’s an advocate for people, and they’re getting that message,” Axelrod continued, adding that Clinton’s advisers “have to really think about that.”
“Her message has tended to focus on solutions and not really reflect back to people the feelings that they have,” Mark Mellman, a veteran Democratic pollster, tells me. “Bernie is reflecting back to people their feelings. She has to do a better job reflecting back to people what they feel and think. Forging an emotional connection is critically important. She’s not always done that very effectively.”
This may be particularly true of younger voters — Sanders won an astonishing 70 percent of voters under 30. As I’ve maintained, this suggests that Sanders — in arguing unflinchingly that the country faces problems so immense that they border on existential threats — may have found a way to speak to younger voters’ profound sense that their future is in doubt. His call for a frank reckoning with the scale of these challenges seems to resonate with them. So another lesson for Clinton may be that she needs to speak more effectively to these voters — and that this could matter in November, because it raises questions as to whether she can sufficiently energize them in Obama-like numbers.
“She needs to close the enthusiasm gap with young voters to replicate the Obama coalition in November,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former top Obama campaign strategist and senior White House adviser, tells me.
There’s an organizational component to this, as well. “She’ll have to put a lot of effort, money, and time into making sure that she gets her message out to young people,” says Jeremy Bird, Obama’s 2012 national field director, who has also done consulting for the Clinton campaign. “If she wins, she will be focused on making she develops an organization that focuses on all the pieces of the Obama coalition.”
Clinton advisers reportedly agree that her message and organization both must be improved upon. However, Pfeiffer cautions against concluding from last night’s results that she is any less likely to win the nomination. “The important caveat is that Iowa is probably her second worse state and Sanders’s second best state, so I am not sure it tells us a ton about her campaign overall,” Pfeiffer says. “She can grind out a primary win by doing what she is doing and holding her margins with the rest of the Democratic coalition.”
Indeed, the more hard-headed demographic analyses of the Democratic primary battle would seem to confirm that last night’s results have not altered the fundamentals that heavily favor Clinton. As Nate Cohn demonstrates, the overwhelmingly white, relatively liberal Iowa electorate was demographically well suited to Sanders. Nor is there any particular reason to believe Sanders’s stiff Iowa challenge will allow him to suddenly make major inroads into Clinton’s substantial advantage with the nonwhite voters who will dominate in the more diverse contests to come, as Obama was able to do after winning Iowa in 2008.
That doesn’t mean the contest won’t drag on for a long time. Sanders is likely to raise boatloads more money off of yesterday’s virtual tie. But if anything, a protracted battle could have some positive effects, both on Clinton and on the Democratic Party overall.
“Bernie may be able to go on to the convention with a lot of leverage,” Axelrod says. “That’s a good thing for the party. He’s speaking to something that is very real. He’s already influenced the debate and the discussion. There’s no debate within the Democratic Party over whether the playing field has been skewed against large numbers of Americans.”
A protracted Sanders challenge, Axelrod concludes, “is going to require that the party address in very direct terms the problems that we face as a country right now.”
UPDATE: Clinton has held her extremely slim lead with 100 percent of precincts counted. I’ve edited the post to reflect this.