With the Des Moines Register releasing its latest Iowa Poll on the Democratic field this morning, let’s take a look at the state of the race for Democrats. Several other polls in recent months showed Clinton with a commanding lead in Iowa, but Ann Selzer’s survey often picks up support from first-time caucus-goers, and this latest one is better for Sanders. Clinton leads with 48% to Sanders’ 39%. O’Malley comes in a very distant third at 4%. So obviously our rankings for the Democrats are not going to change (as they haven’t all year), but there’s still plenty to mull over:
1. Hillary Clinton
When historians look back at the 2016 presidential race, they’ll likely declare the second to last week of October as “The Week Hillary Won.” Well, the Democratic nomination anyway. That was the stretch of days where Clinton performed well in the first Democratic debate, Joe Biden decided against running (and Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee dropped out too), Clinton endured the 11-hour Benghazi committee and her Iowa campaign showed off their organizational superiority at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner. Since that week Clinton regained her significant polling lead nationally and Democrats in general started to feel more comfortable with her as their nominee (the Republicans’ botched hit job on her at the Benghazi committee prompted many Democrats to rally around her).
Recently, no news is good news for the Democrats’ front-runner. Gone are the constant stories over the email server. The few times she does appear in national news cycles is usually when she’s slamming Donald Trump. In Iowa her visits are simple but methodical, holding town hall forums to address voters’ questions and issues, while also doing important volunteer thank-you work to keep their grassroots motivated. Her field operation keeps gaining steam, signing up impressive numbers of new supporters across the state every day. Clinton continues to do just what she needs to in order to win the Iowa Caucus.
The only big concern is whether she’s winning over people who were legitimately undecided or hesitant on her, or if she’s simply solidifying mainstream Democratic voters. Do the voters who gravitate toward Sanders even give her a chance? She faces very few tough or hostile questions at Iowa town halls, something you might expect if Sanders supporters showed up to challenge her. Instead, Clinton’s events are largely a mix of die-hard fans and undecided Democrats asking policy-heavy questions.
The other thing to keep an eye on with Clinton is whether her voters get complacent with Clinton’s lead in Iowa and nationally, making them less motivated to show up to the caucus. This was a bigger issue than people realize from 2008 in Iowa and other earlier states. Fortunately for Clinton, her sprawling caucus operation should ensure that the vast majority of those Iowans who signed caucus commitment cards actually show up on caucus night.
2. Bernie Sanders
Sanders’ campaign certainly would have preferred to see their candidate pull closer to Clinton in the recent Iowa Poll, but a 9% gap is still within striking distance. The question is what can Sanders realistically do different between now and caucus night to make that up? Democrats largely know who the two main candidates are at this point. There aren’t many undecideds left, so Sanders’ campaign needs to go out and find even more new caucus-goers to turn out in addition to what they already have.
Sanders still has something big going for him: enthusiasm. Starting Line attended three Sanders events this weekend and was impressed with the excitement and energy at each rally. Over 1,400 showed up in Waterloo on Saturday night and over 1,100 in Mt. Vernon on Sunday afternoon. Young people made up well over half of the audience at both events. It was a raucous atmosphere, an encouraging sign for Sanders, who has been largely absent from the national discussion and media coverage. On the Republican side when a candidate disappeared from the national news for over a month their support in Iowa soon shriveled. Not so for Sanders.
No matter what happens nationally, Sanders continues to thrive through a strong following on social media and among progressives who prefer his outsider crusade against big money and the establishment. That energy will be what Sanders must count on to somehow eke out a close win in Iowa. It’s still doable, it’s just going to take a lot more work and a little bit of luck.
3. Martin O’Malley
Where does O’Malley go from here? He had a solid debate performance at the second Democratic outing and should have received more momentum and voter interest out of it. Unfortunately, comparatively few people watched the second debate (hurt by its late-night Saturday time and the Paris attack), eliminating his benefit. And the next ones will have a limited impact too, thanks to Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s effort to deny Clinton’s opponents opportunities to break out. The next Democratic debate is held this upcoming Saturday at 7 PM Central, right in the middle of holiday shopping, and the final one is on Sunday, January 17th, during a NFL playoff game (and much too close to the Iowa Caucus to really capitalize on whatever happens).
So where else can O’Malley break out and drive up interest in the early states? Probably nowhere. Short of showing up to a Trump rally and punching the business mogul in the face, I don’t know what O’Malley could do to get back into this race. Donald Trump’s dominance of 2016 coverage hasn’t only driven Republican candidates like Scott Walker, Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal into obscurity, he’s sucked most of the oxygen out of the Democratic field too. O’Malley has actually done a good job of occasionally inserting himself into several national story lines, and continues to sharply differentiate his policy ideas from Clinton and Sanders, but it simply hasn’t been enough to provide voters with a clear narrative of why O’Malley could be an attractive alternative.
It doesn’t sound good behind the scenes either. Some of his national staff have already left for other non-presidential campaigns, and Starting Line hears rumors that many have been told they can be looking for other jobs. At this point the main hope is for Clinton or Sanders to make a major error to give O’Malley a chance, and he may as well stay in a little while longer. In absence of that, they’ll have to make tough decisions on which precincts to play in where they can actually reach viability.
by Pat Rynard