Iowa: The Democrats

The spin doctors are fully employed this morning. Insofar as they’re being truthful, you can find the best lawyerly case for each candidate. I’m not interested in lawyerly cases except in the limited sense that I want to understand whose argument is coming off as the most persuasive in the Spin Wars.

What I try to figure out is what will happen and why. How the media treat the results from last night will have a big impact on the ‘why,’ so this is a factor that cannot be ignored.

First, on the merits, last night was a clear victory for Bernie Sanders, but not necessarily the victory he needed. Despite all the small donations and big rallies, yesterday was the first test of the Sanders campaign. When Sanders went the podium last night shortly before midnight eastern time, he was able to boast:

Thank you. Iowa, thank you. Nine months ago, we came to this beautiful state. We had no political organization; we had no money; no name recognition. And we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the United States of America.

And tonight while the results are still not known, it looks like we are in a virtual tie.

And while the results are still not complete, it looks like we’ll have half of the Iowa delegates.

That was a completely factual, even objective, take on the results. It was, in any fair context, a stunning achievement. And it was bolstered by the fact that he managed to exceed expectations by outperforming the polls. Hillary Clinton had spoken somewhat earlier, and while she projected confidence, her expressed sense of relief (that she had avoided outright defeat) was masking obvious disappointment.

Mathematically, Clinton will emerge with a delegate lead, but she only earned one net delegate from the actual voting. Her advantage comes from Iowa’s superdelegates. This could be the beginning of a pattern, and it’s one of her important advantages.

The spin coming out of the Clinton camp is that Sanders had an ideal situation last night. He had a nearly all-white electorate and the caucus system that plagued Clinton in her duel with Barack Obama eight years ago. And, yet, even in this environment, Sanders wasn’t able to land a clear victory. If he can’t win in Iowa, he’s not likely to win much of anywhere else, except perhaps in New England. This is also a factual argument. But the demographics revealed in Iowa aren’t necessarily so promising for Clinton.

Here is what she must now worry about:

Eighty-four percent of those under 30 supported Sanders, as did 60 percent of those between 30 and 44. And it was not just young men who turned out for Sanders. Eighty-six percent of women under 30 said they supported Sanders, and he won the support of women between the ages of 30 and 44 by 53 percent to 42 percent.

Overall, Clinton did well among women caucus attenders with an 11-point margin over Sanders, as she drew strong support among women over 45 who were a majority of the women who came out to the Democratic caucuses.

The demographic argument for Clinton is based on the support she has in the black and Latino communities, which should allow her to weather the result in Iowa and a likely defeat in New Hampshire. When the contest moves to more diverse states, like South Carolina and Nevada, she’ll be able grind Sanders down.

This is true, and if Sanders can’t make inroads with people of color, he won’t win the nomination. But…

Clinton has to be concerned about two other demographic results. Losing 84% of voters under 30 is enough of a problem that it undercuts the racial demographic argument. A slim 11-point lead with women is also worrisome, especially because she’s losing badly among women younger than forty-five. All of these numbers should improve in a more diverse electorate, but let’s be clear about how bad these numbers are for her.

Perhaps the most problematic factor in these demographics is that they bolster, strongly, Sanders’ electability argument. And it’s not just spin. My 23 year old stepson, who isn’t very political, just called to tell me, “It’s unbelievable! My friends have never talked about voting before. Never discussed it. And they’re all saying that they can’t wait to vote for Sanders. Hillary offers them nothing to get excited about and, if she’s the nominee, there’s no way they’ll turn out for her.”

I know better than to put a lot of stock in that type of anecdotal evidence, but the 84% number certainly backs it up.

Before last night, everything was hypothetical. This morning, the Sanders supporters can marshall actual numbers to show that their candidate will boost turnout with the youth vote. This is a major reason why Sanders had the better evening.

And things certainly could have gone the other way. Clinton could have delivered a heavy blow that would have taken the wind out of the Sanders’ sails the same way that Kerry delivered a near-knockout punch to Howard Dean twelve years ago. That this didn’t happen is a problem for Team Clinton. She is now looking at a long slog to the nomination. Sanders is getting very favorable media coverage and will raise millions of dollars from his donors, virtually none of whom are maxed out. He will win nearly half the delegates in any state where he can top 40% of the vote, making it impossible for her to mathematically eliminate him anytime in the next few months.

Despite all this good news for Sanders, things would have been better for him if he could have won outright. And Iowa really was tailor-made for him. He’s got to do better or he’ll never start netting delegates and eating into Clinton’s superdelegate lead. But he proved the concept last night and he’ll be very hard to knock out.

Clinton will have to earn this the hard way, and that’s not what she or the Democratic Establishment was hoping for last night.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.