DES MOINES — The present state of Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination is a paradox. She is now seen as both increasingly vulnerable and ultimately invincible. The tension between the two provides the narrative that now defines the Democratic nomination contest.
Her vulnerability comes in part from a raft of new polls, which show Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont threatening to upset the once heavily favored Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire. That’s a change as the election year opens, and one that is creating a fresh sense of urgency inside the Clinton campaign, reflected in the candidate’s stepped-up attacks on Sanders’s record and ideas.
Iowa is the wild card right now. New Hampshire long has provided Sanders with a home-court advantage. As Bill Clinton noted last week, candidates from states bordering New Hampshire almost always win the Granite State’s presidential primary. Sanders long has been positioned to claim the crown there on Feb. 9, but without success in Iowa on Feb. 1, the value of a victory would be significantly diminished.
In Iowa, he has no such advantage. But neither does Clinton. She ran third here in the 2008 caucuses behind then-senator Barack Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards. She left the state with sour feelings about the caucus process, which she has been working diligently over the past months to get rid of. But Iowa remains challenging and unpredictable terrain.
Sanders is making the most of all this. The enthusiasm for his candidacy was palpable as he moved around Iowa the past few days. He continues to attract big crowds — young and old — drawn to the passion of his plain-speaking style but even more to his unabashed conviction that government must use its resources, through higher taxes as needed, to rebalance the inequities of an economy that has rewarded the rich far more than everyone else.
Clinton cannot and will not match him in this potential big-government bidding war, though she has looked for ways to inch closer to him on some issues and to draw distinctions where she believes he is most exposed. Her husband’s New Democrat roots and her own sense of limits about the realities of governing — her innate caution and preference for incrementalism — mean she must excite her party in other ways, and that has long proved to be difficult.
Right now, the passion gap favors Sanders, though by how much and for how long no one can say. But it has gotten the attention of the Clinton team. The fact that Clinton and Sanders are neck-and-neck in the polls in Iowa is worrisome.
Ironically, it could prove to be a motivating factor for the Clinton campaign, if it can turn the discussion properly. If there is complacency or a misplaced sense of confidence among Clinton supporters about where this race was heading, the new polls have offered a bracing reminder to those who want her to be president that nothing can be taken for granted.
Yet even as she battles these renewed questions about her candidacy, Clinton and her team have been able to perpetuate the belief that, in the end, Sanders cannot defeat her — and perhaps that’s true. The case for her ultimate success is built on the calendar and the institutional forces she continues to amass, though process arguments are never the best strategy for winning a nomination.
Still, once past Iowa and New Hampshire, the argument goes, the calendar heavily favors her. When African American and Hispanic voters begin to weigh in after the first two states, when South Carolina and Nevada are heard from, when other Southern states get their say, she will be able to put any early defeats behind her.
The Democratic establishment does not want Clinton to lose, and she continues to gather up the endorsements of establishment figures and elected officials. She came to Iowa on Monday accompanied by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. On Tuesday, she picked up the endorsement of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, drawing attention to Sanders’s more checkered record on the issue.
Clinton wears this establishment support somewhat uncomfortably. It is a measure of the respect she enjoys after many years in the thick of the action and is an asset if the Democratic contest drags on longer than she once expected. But it also reflects the sense of obligation felt by many in the party to support her and can weigh her down as a candidate.
Sanders, meanwhile, won the endorsement of the progressive grass-roots group Move On, highlighting anew that right now there is a sizable gap between the party’s liberal base and its establishment wing.
Yet Sanders, too, must overcome perceptions of Clinton as the eventual nominee if he hopes to truly challenge her. Talk to people at Sanders’s rallies, and you come away with the sense that, as much as they love him, his candidacy, what he has accomplished and what he stands for, almost all would be perfectly comfortable if Clinton ultimately prevails. The Sanders supporters are there for him, but not to demonize her. That’s a different dynamic than the one playing out among the Republicans.
Sanders is trying to overcome all this by seizing on polls that show him running better than Clinton in the general election. The question of electability long has been one of his biggest obstacles and the fresh polls have now given him ammunition to make his case.
Clinton’s advisers are confident that the electability argument ultimately favors her. If Sanders picks up too much momentum, the question they will put to Democratic voters will be stark: In a general election that most analysts believe will be close and extremely hard fought, is a democratic socialist the right kind of nominee to put up against the Republicans?
So much comes back to Iowa and the battle that will unfold over the next three weeks. Sanders counts on the energy and enthusiasm to bring more voters to the polls and needs a big turnout, from young voters in particular and probably independents who must register as Democrats.
Clinton has one thing going for her in Iowa this year that she lacked in 2008, which is a unified operation. Her 2008 campaign was plagued by battles between her national headquarters team and her Iowa team. Most of her national advisers never really understood Iowa or the caucus process. For much of 2007, the two parts of her campaign were at war with one another over resources, the candidate’s time and travel schedule and just what it would take to win.
That’s not the case this year, or so say the people inside the campaign. The national and Iowa teams have been working from the same page from the start, under the direction of campaign manager Robby Mook, Iowa director Matt Paul and Iowa caucus director Michael Halle.
Not knowing just what turnout will be on Feb. 1, they have set high goals and are determined to meet them. Whether that will be enough to overcome an unexpected surge in turnout or the power of Sanders’s organizational efforts and enthusiasm for his candidacy is the question no poll can answer.
The nightmare scenario for the Clinton team right now is a race that drags well into the early spring. Given his huge success at raising large amounts of money in small contributions, Sanders has more than enough resources to wage a long, long battle, even a losing one. The longer it goes, the more it could weaken Clinton for the general election and, more to the point, would deplete her resources just as the Republicans and their super PACs go after her.
That’s why so much now depends on what happens in Iowa.