There’s fewer degrees of Fahrenheit outside in Iowa right now than there are days left until the Iowa Caucus, but not by much. The final Democratic debate before the caucus was held last night, and it reflected a much changed dynamic since months past. Hillary Clinton is fighting for her life in Iowa, much as she did eight years ago. This time she’s better prepared and while Bernie Sanders is capturing all the enthusiasm, he’s still not Barack Obama from 2008. As those of us on the ground have predicted for a long time, it’s going to be very close on caucus night. Let’s take one last ranking look at how things stand for the Democrats.
1 & 2: Tied – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders
Oh hey, what do you know, turns out the Democrats’ nomination battle is interesting after all. The reason for Sanders’ continued competitiveness is clear: he’s tapped into a frustration about our country’s politics, he seems authentic with his give-’em-hell personality and he’s reached people through social media in a way no other candidate has. Sanders has also notably dominated the news cycles of late – something he almost never did in 2015. Part of that is his own new willingness to challenge Clinton more openly on banking regulation, her ties to Wall Street and Medicare-for-all.
Turning out first-time caucus-goers is always a difficult task, but the momentum Sanders enjoys right now will ease the difficulty. The ceiling of his turnout seems much higher than Clinton’s (weather may end up playing a significant factor on caucus night). Plus the Sanders Iowa team has quietly put together an impressive operation outside the usual power structures in the party.
Clinton’s campaign took entirely too long to ramp up the criticisms of Sanders’ policies (or in some cases, the lack thereof), allowing him to galvanize a strong base of support within the party. Had Sanders’ policies and bad gun votes been highlighted earlier, Democrats may have thought twice about him. Now many of their minds are already made up, and new critiques won’t sway them as easily.
The odd thing about all of this is that it’s hard to pinpoint why Clinton is suddenly struggling. She hasn’t faced a deluge of negative advertising. She hasn’t slipped up with any major gaffe on the campaign trail. And there’s been nothing new with the email server or any other storyline damaging to her candidacy in the headlines recently. So what’s the problem?
In the latest Des Moines Register poll, Sanders now trails Clinton by only 2 points, 42-40. But Sanders hadn’t gained much; rather, Clinton’s standing had slipped and undecideds grew. That’s usually the opposite of how it happens, with fewer undecided voters this close to the caucus. So are Democrats having second thoughts about Clinton, but aren’t yet ready to say they’re with Sanders? Or has Sanders impressed them so much they’re wavering on Clinton?
Clinton should still be considered the slight favorite to win. Many of these new lines of attack on Sanders haven’t been heard much before. The feasibility of his healthcare plan and potential changing of positions on gun legislation could trip him up a bit, while there’s nothing new that’s going to come out about Clinton. And her massive field operation will ensure even the otherwise-unmotivated Clinton backers should turn out on caucus night.
Or at least they hope. The problem Clinton faced in 2008 was so many of her supporters didn’t realize she was really at risk of losing until it was too late. In later primary states, Clinton volunteers came out in droves and her small donors skyrocketed. Will they realize the need to show up in time this go around?
3. Martin O’Malley
There’s still a small chance that something happens in the last two weeks to give O’Malley a boost (he did well at the debate with what time he had), but most of his Iowa supporters that Starting Line talks to are resigned to the fact they’ll struggle to reach viability in their precinct. His backers here remain loyal, though, and are doing what they can to fight on. He’ll need a caucus night showing in the double digits to surprise, but that’s looking increasingly difficult to do. Several of his recent events in the state have stuck to smaller roundtable settings, making one wonder if they’re avoiding larger venues out of fear of low attendance. The big thing to watch with O’Malley is where his second-choicers go in precincts O’Malley is not viable. That alone could swing the race between Clinton and Sanders (and is another, in-depth story I’m working on right now).
by Pat Rynard