The latest piece of bad news for Hillary Rodham Clinton came in the form of a Quinnipiac poll out of Iowa on Thursday morning: Bernie Sanders, 41 percent. Clinton, 40 percent. Clinton has dropped 11 points in two months in the state, and now 1 in 3 self-identified Democrats say she is not honest or trustworthy.
The poll numbers come just days after NBC and Marist College released twin surveys in Iowa and New Hampshire that also spelled trouble for Clinton. She led Sanders in Iowa 38 to 27 — less than half her lead in a July NBC/Marist poll. In New Hampshire, Sanders led Clinton 41 to 32 — a 20-point shift from where the race stood in July.
Then there's this "crowd" shot from a Clinton event Thursday in Columbus, Ohio:
Memo to Clinton-world: It might be time to start panicking.
I know it's Sept. 10. I know there won't be a vote of any sort until mid-January — at the earliest. I know that Clinton remains solidly ahead in national polling. I know that Sanders is not Barack Obama. I know that the Q poll has missed before — most notably in the Iowa Senate race in 2014 when it had the contest tied and Joni Ernst won by nine points. I know that Clinton has yet to begin spending heavily on TV in either of the first two early-voting states. And I know that Sanders has yet to demonstrate any ability to appeal to non-white Democratic primary voters.
But I also know that there is now a realistic — if not strong — chance that Sanders will win the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. And that Vice President Biden enters the race and circles the South Carolina primary as his place to take down Clinton (and Sanders). Add those things up and there's plenty of reason for some stomach-churning at Clinton's Brooklyn headquarters.
Iowa has always been a bit of a sleeping giant for Sanders, given that the Democratic caucus electorate is far more liberal than the state as a whole and has shown an unwillingness to fall in line with Clinton (in the 2008 campaign, for instance, she finished third). It's also worth remembering that Bill Clinton never competed actively in Iowa in 1992 because of the native-son candidacy of then-Sen. Tom Harkin. There never has been a deep and abiding connection between the Clintons and Iowa. Hillary Clinton is working to combat that reality with pure manpower; she now has 78 staffers in the state and has a state woman leader in each of the 99 counties.
In New Hampshire, Sanders always has been a problem for Clinton because of geographic familiarity. The NBC/Marist poll is, in fact, only the latest in a series of polls that show the senator from Vermont with a steady edge. The Real Clear Politics average of polling in the Granite State gives Sanders an edge of more than seven points — and the trend line doesn't look good for Clinton.
Yes, everything beyond those two states — South Carolina, Nevada and then the slew of Super Tuesday states — looks good for Clinton. Today. But who's to say what political cost Clinton might pay for losing the first two states to Sanders with Biden, potentially, waiting to ambush her in the Palmetto State?
Remember how Rudy Giuliani was just going to let the first three states play out before making his mark by winning the Florida primary in 2008? He was irrelevant long before the vote turned to the Sunshine State. The first states to vote inevitably impact how the race is covered and, therefore, how voters (and donors) regard it. Front-runners need to win; otherwise they aren't front-runners anymore.
That's especially true for Clinton, who has been rightly described as the biggest non-incumbent front-runner in the history of the modern presidential primary process. Does anyone really think that if she lost Iowa and New Hampshire to Sanders that there wouldn't be calls for her to leave the race or, at a minimum, a panicked search by the Democratic establishment for an alternative? (Biden, anyone?)
Now, it's uniquely possible that we are looking at the nadir of Clinton's numbers. Her straight-up apology this week for having used a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state suggests that she may finally be listening to advisers (and donors) who see the issue causing major erosion in her numbers. She will heavily outspend Sanders — on TV and in on-the-ground staff — between now and the Iowa caucuses. She remains a favorite to become the Democratic nominee. If you are betting man or woman, she's (still) your person.
But, the monthly release of e-mails she sent at the State Department will continue through the rest of this year, keeping the issue swirling in the news. And momentum, once lost, is very hard to get back. All of the momentum is with Democratic candidates not named "Hillary Clinton" at the moment. It's got to be a nervy time around Clinton HQ.