Hillary Clinton’s victory in Iowa Monday night was far more decisive than the razor-thin margin would indicate.
By holding off Bernie Sanders in Iowa — it’s a win for now, and a tie was good enough — Clinton showed that even in a state that is rigged for white, liberal passion candidates, Sanders hasn’t fully captured the hearts and minds of Democrats. It’s true that there will be a long Democratic primary this time around, but it’s not likely to be competitive.
The map and the delegate math get a lot better for Clinton, and a lot worse for Sanders, after New Hampshire, which Clinton, should she lose as expected, can credibly enough write off as a regional victory for the candidate who hails from the state next door.
She’s well positioned to compete in the Nevada caucuses, where Latinos make up a significant share of the electorate and the influential Culinary Workers Union, which endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, has said it will not back a candidate this time around.
And even as Clinton campaigns in New Hampshire, she is sending in high-value validators and surrogates to ensure African American voters in South Carolina, who are pivotal in Democratic primaries, stick with her. She released an ad this week featuring former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the nation’s first black attorney general and a close friend of Obama's, and former President Bill Clinton met with state legislators on Wednesday . Sanders simply doesn’t have that kind of firepower in South Carolina or other states where black voters make up a majority or significant minority of the Democratic electorate.
And then the math gets really hard for Sanders.
In an internal memo obtained by ABC News, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook noted that “the states with primaries and caucuses in March represent 56 percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination,” and that “seven of the 11 Super Tuesday states have large minority populations — including Alabama, Georgia and Texas, which are expected to see majority-minority turnouts.”
To win, Sanders would have to cut deeply into Clinton’s advantages with black and Hispanic voters in the next month or so, something he has not been able to do over the past nine months. And he will continue to struggle to do it in the face of clear support for Clinton among a strong contingent of former Obama appointees and White House aides — support that suggests the president himself prefers Clinton — and Clinton's long-standing ties to the Hispanic voters who greatly aided her 2008 effort.
So, why does the Clinton campaign insist, as Sanders does, that it’s going to be a long primary season? I surmise it’s for three reasons: 1) Voters will see Sanders on the ballot throughout the process because he’s got enough money and enough incentive to stay in the race even if he’s losing. 2) It will be easier for Clinton to avoid storylines that she’s slipping if and when Sanders racks up a few wins in states where voters, or more likely caucus-goers, prefer him. 3) It’s a good thing for Clinton to have Sanders accumulating supporters, particularly in swing states, if he’s able to convert them into her column for the general election.
It can’t be taken as a given that Sanders could or would push the Democratic leaners and independents who have been drawn to his campaign into Clinton’s camp in the general election. But if past is prologue, the long 2008 campaign season, in which Clinton and Obama organized in all 50 states, benefited Obama when he squared off against Republican nominee John McCain.
Despite a lot of consternation and speculation that she wouldn’t, Clinton gave two full-throated endorsements of Obama in 2008 that sought to join the historic nature of her own candidacy — and hopes for a female president — with the aspirations of Democrats who wanted to elect the first black president. She did it by evoking black women pioneers, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, in bookend speeches conceding to Obama and endorsing him at the Democratic National Convention.
Sanders would be under a lot of pressure to try to fold his organization into hers, giving her the boost of voters he attracted into the Democratic primary process.
A long campaign season is also good for Clinton — assuming that she wins — because it will keep the media’s focus on a horse race and away from damaging stories about her email practices, her personal accumulation of wealth from companies with business before the government, and the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising. It’s not that the press corps can’t or won’t walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s just that there’s less capacity to chew gum in the midst of a marathon campaign.
So, when you hear Clintonites talk about the long march toward the nomination, keep in mind that they’re not really bemoaning it. They’re counting on it.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is head of community and content for Sidewire and a co-author of the New York Times-bestselling book “HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton.” He and co-author Amie Parnes are working on a follow-up book about the 2016 election.
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