I’ll be honest: last week I had a different idea of how I was going to rank this. I planned on taking the bold step of putting Bernie Sanders at number one, making the argument that if the Iowa Caucus were to be held today, he’d win it. Despite the Clinton organizing advantage, the sheer enthusiasm of the Sanders surge right now would flood caucus precincts with too many new Bernie-backing voters, and Clinton would narrowly lose out. I even had a really awesome opening line for the lede, which I’m sad I can’t use now. But such a move simply isn’t justified after the Hall of Fame Dinner on Friday night, some of the reasoning for which you can read in our analysis of that night.
Let’s rank ’em: (Click here for our previous Democrats ranking in May)
The Sanders surge was making some Clinton backers sweat for a bit, but Clinton’s outstanding performance on Friday night should put some daylight back between the two. There are most certainly those in the party who will simply never be impressed by Clinton, but there are also many who are open to backing her, they’re just concerned she’d be a flawed nominee after what happened last time. The forcefulness of her speech may put part of that concern to rest. It might also make certain labor leaders second-guess their itching to gravitate toward Sanders. Some want a candidate 100% pure on policy, others are happy with a nominee that’s going to fight like hell for Democratic priorities. Clinton was a fighter on Friday night.
Meanwhile her Iowa Caucus operation remains the best organized, able to mobilize supporters in every county in the state. That still gives her an important leg up in caucus preparations.
Some concerns still remain. Her relationship with the press remains rocky, and her first sit-down interview with CNN didn’t go so hot. She’s also not seeing huge turnouts at her public events, which she amazingly has only held three of in Iowa since announcing in April. The rest have been exclusive, invite-only house parties and roundtables. She has clearly learned some useful Iowa insights from those more personal events, but one wonders if it’s time to move on. She can clearly rev up a crowd now. Some more public events to rally supporters and grow enthusiasm and momentum could be useful, as would be town hall forums where she can directly address issues from skeptical caucus-goers.
2. Bernie Sanders
While Sanders may still sit second to Clinton, here’s the good news: the massive crowds and enthusiasm he’s seen on the campaign trail show no signs of slowing down. I really can’t emphasize enough this moment he had in Council Bluffs a few weeks ago: Sanders drew a crowd of 2,500 in Council Bluffs a full seven months out from the Iowa Caucus. In 2008 Barack Obama got a turnout of 1,050 two days before the 2008 Iowa Caucus. That’s simply incredible.
But the limitations of his appeal came into full view at the Hall of Fame Dinner. The reaction to his line on opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership may have been the most informative of the night. It’s been the hot topic on liberal shows, online and among labor unions and has drawn big reactions at his own events, but only got decent levels of applause on Friday from the non-Sanders supporters part of the room. Sanders loves his economic inequality message, and spends a good 90% of his speeches on it, but some of those issues aren’t the top priority of every single Democratic caucus-goer.
There’s also the matter of Clinton’s head start in organizing. Clinton had an entire 40+ person Iowa team trained, on the ground and ready to go the day she announced. Sanders, on the other hand, was slower to mobilize, clearly not anticipating the massive excitement he’d soon find, which is a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. His tours around the country to places like Madison and Dallas seem like a stalling tactic, aimed at continuing to produce big crowds to keep up the momentum while the campaign team assembles. They’re pretty much there now in Iowa, so they’ll be better able to take full advantage of the excitement.
Here’s the big question for Sanders: which approach do you take to win the Iowa Caucus? Do you keep beating the same drum of income inequality that’s got you this far and try to turn out tons of new voters to the caucus to overtake Clinton? Or do you expand your message, reach out to other Democratic constituencies, and try to broaden your base beyond your enthusiastic supporters? The latter approach doesn’t mean sacrificing your authenticity just because you’re talking about other Democratic policies. If that’s what they choose, it’ll be interesting to see how effectively – and how willingly – Sanders himself will engage in it.
3. Martin O’Malley – The former Governor is definitely rising, even if it’s not enough to nip at Bernie Sanders’ heels just yet. He spoke to his largest audience in Iowa yet on Friday and impressed the crowd, earning some of the broadest applause and standing ovations of any candidate. That will help him keep building his network of caucus activists, ensuring a solid infrastructure in Iowa, though it may still not show up in the polls for a while.
As we’ve written before, O’Malley needs the dynamics of the race to shift somehow to get a real opening. He may be able to cause that himself in the debates in the Fall, but for now he’s largely biding his time, needing a major mistake from Clinton, or for the Sanders flame to die down. He did see Sanders stumble some at the Netroots Nation event in Arizona on Saturday when black activists interrupted his Q&A with a protest. Sanders left afterward, while O’Malley stuck around to speak with the upset people. That led to a mocking #BernieSoBlack trend on Twitter the next day.
As for right now, he’s accomplishing just what he needs to. The crowds he’s earning at Iowa stops aren’t as big as Sanders’ or Clinton’s, but they’re perfectly good for most Iowa Caucus events (before the age of these celebrity candidates). And the people he’s winning over are the ones who really show up on caucus night and can persuade their friends to join the O’Malley corner.
4. Jim Webb – The veteran and former Senator did alright on Friday, honing in on foreign policy topics and criminal justice reform. Webb is selling a certain set of issues, but he’s also selling a personality, whether he emphasizes it or not. And that’s one of a low-key, serious thinker who doesn’t get wound up in the political media circus of the day. That appeals to some people within the party. Now, it doesn’t appeal to enough folks for him to seriously threaten anyone ahead of him in the polls, but if he works hard in the Iowa Caucus he’ll remain in the conversation, and, most importantly, get his message across about the policies he cares for.
5. Uncommitted – As we said before, it’s entirely possible that several precincts around the state will see O’Malley, Webb and Chafee not meet the 15% threshold to be viable. In those places, it wouldn’t surprise me to see those caucus-goers realign to form an uncommitted group by people who are not interested in either Clinton or Sanders.
6. Lincoln Chafee – This guy needs to figure out why he’s in the race and work on his pitch a little more. His performance at the Hall of Fame Dinner was forgettable, not helpful for a candidate barely anyone knows. He’s not going to gain attention until he finds a specific message or niche that can break through the media coverage or attract people to see him at events around the state. Last week was his first week traveling through Iowa since announcing – hopefully by the time he returns he’ll have a better, sharper message.
by Pat Rynard