“What Iowa has begun tonight, is a political revolution,” declared Bernie Sanders shortly before midnight, as returns showed a virtual tie with 95 per cent of the Democratic vote counted.
“When young people and working people and seniors begin to stand up and say loudly and clearly, ‘Enough is enough. Our government belongs to all of us, and not just a handful of billionaires.’ When that happens we will transform this country.”
This was not the Iowa caucus anyone was expecting. If you’re wondering just how close it was, consider this: at least three local delegates were awarded by a coin toss on this night, following an arcane procedure buried in the quirks of the state’s political rules.
On a night Sanders described as a “virtual tie” it was somehow fitting that the final result seemed like it could be decided by the flip of a coin.
All-in on Iowa
According to the New York Times, the Clinton campaign invested upwards of 90 per cent of their resources in two places: their Brooklyn headquarters and their Iowa operation, betting the farm on the importance of the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Against that backdrop, it would have been disastrous for her to lose tonight’s caucuses. And she didn’t lose. But she didn’t win either.
The Clinton camp declared victory before 10:30 p.m. eastern, a premature declaration panned on cable channels as a panic move, but the result was far from the worst case for the Secretary of State’s campaign. That would have been back-to-back decisive losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. She expressed relief at the result in her brief speech, and now she’ll claim the win, take her half of Iowa’s 52 delegates and weather an expected loss in New Hampshire before moving on to presumably friendlier territory in South Carolina.
Curiosity no more
But the victory on this night went to the ascendant socialist senator from Vermont who started this campaign as a footnote. A curiosity. A symbolic placeholder candidate whose only purpose was to push the eventual nominee to the left.
Bernie Sanders had other ideas, and as he strode onstage just before midnight eastern time to deliver a speech stronger and more resonant than any I have seen from him, it was hard to avoid the feeling that Sanders is just getting started.
On June 1 of last year, Clinton led Sanders in an average of Iowa polling by almost 50 per cent. On Nov. 1, Clinton led by 22, and as recently as Jan. 1 her lead was over 15 per cent.
Clinton still has all the structural advantages, but Sanders proved tonight that his campaign is for real. Momentum is everything in politics, and the candidate who has closed a fifty point gap in seven months seems to have an abundance of the big mo.
Martin O’Malley, running an invisible third place campaign, fared so poorly in Iowa that he announced his withdrawal from the race Monday evening as the caucus results were still coming in.
A long, hard fight to come
Now we go on to New Hampshire, where poll-tracking site fivethirtyeight.com gives Sanders a 90 per cent chance of winning, based on an almost 20 point lead in the poll average.
From there to Nevada, and then South Carolina, where polls favour Clinton. Then Super Tuesday, when almost a dozen mostly southern states vote on March 1. Polls show Clinton still leading in many of these states, although Sanders is closing that gap, and she remains the frontrunner.
As I write these words Clinton leads Sanders by four delegates in Iowa, 696 to 692, with 99 per cent of the vote reported. Whatever the eventual outcome, it might as well be a coin flip.
Clinton remains the favourite in this race, but the insurgency is growing. What looked like a cakewalk to the nomination a few months ago now promises to be long and hard-fought campaign.
Sanders’ political revolution is alive and well headed out of Iowa, and there's no denying the fact he now represents a real threat to Clinton's presumed nomination. Who would have imagined that back in June?