Clinton and Sanders effectively battled to a draw in the Iowa caucuses, splitting the vote in the first presidential selection contest of 2016. The outcome, stunning after Clinton’s one-time dominance over a challenger who entered the race a virtual unknown, means the two Democrats are likely to claim roughly the same number of delegates so far.
Even if Clinton prevails, the close contest in Iowa confirms that Sanders’s anti-establishment message has real muscle and appeal. While a narrow victory for the former secretary of state would make good on nearly a year of dutiful campaigning and heavy investment in Iowa, it would also leave residual doubts about her weaknesses among Democratic voters.
Sanders leads Clinton in New Hampshire, which votes in seven days, and has money and national support to continue to challenge her for weeks or months beyond that. Clinton remains the favorite to win the Democratic nomination this summer, but a pair of losses to begin the primary season would be likely to leave her hobbled.
Clinton took the stage at her election-night party late Monday without immediately claiming victory. Instead, she acknowledged how unresolved her battle with Sanders is.
“It is rare that we have the opportunity,” Clinton said, “to have a real contest of ideas, to really think hard about what the Democratic Party stands for, and what we want the future of our country to look like.”
Later in her remarks, Clinton said: “I stand here tonight breathing a big sigh of relief. Thank you, Iowa.”
Sanders took the stage at his own party a short time later, and he declared the contest a draw. “Tonight, while the results are still not known, it looks like we are in a virtual tie,” he said. “It looks like we’ll have about half of the Iowa delegates.”
Just after midnight, with 95 percent of precincts reporting, Clinton logged 49.8 percent support, and Sanders showed 49.6 percent. Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who suspended his campaign after his dismal showing in Iowa, registered just 0.6 percent – although that number reflected the fact that, in most precincts, his supporters were given the choice to caucus with another candidate after he registered less than 15 percent. It is unclear what will happen to the eight delegates O’Malley did win, which could sway the contest between Clinton and Sanders.
The former secretary of state, senator from New York and first lady began her campaign in Iowa 40 points ahead of Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont and self-described democratic socialist who was initially considered little more than a gadfly. Clinton’s erosion of support sowed doubts about her policy-driven candidacy in a year of populist insurgency and outsider candidates.
The former secretary of state’s answer, delivered with increasing urgency in the closing weeks, was that she has more practical and realistic proposals than Sanders and that she would be the better choice for Democrats to defeat a Republican candidate in the fall.
“I think I have the record, the experience, the know-how to get it done,” she said in an interview Monday on NBC.
Her campaign manager, Robby Mook, said in an interview Monday that the close race “tested us. It’s made us better at what we do.”
Sanders’s extraordinary come-from-way-behind campaign captured a current of liberal anger at the status quo and rocked Clinton’s by-the-book attempt to redeem her crippling loss in Iowa eight years ago.
Heading into the caucus vote, most polls showed Clinton and Sanders within two or three percentage points of each other. Although most polls showed Clinton with a slight edge, the findings were within the margin of error.
Turnout appeared high by caucus standards, with long lines to enter schools, firehouses and other voting places. The Iowa Democratic Party said numbers were not expected to reach the historic statewide high of 240,000 in 2008, when Barack Obama delivered a stunning defeat to Clinton here.
Network exit polling showed Democratic voters divided sharply along generational and ideological lines. Sanders was fueled by an overwhelming lead among younger and strongly liberal voters, while Clinton was buoyed by broad support from moderates and those older than 50.
Clinton’s campaign said from the start that it anticipated a competitive primary. History suggested that it was right, even if Clinton’s fortress-like dominance of the race early on suggested otherwise.
Although Clinton has fervent supporters, boasts the magic of her last name and carries the history-making potential to become the first woman president, she has run a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other campaign in Iowa that prized mechanics over majesty. She has struggled to inspire the Democratic electorate and expand her rationale for running much beyond her own lengthy résumé.
And despite her record-setting popularity as secretary of state, Clinton has spent a good part of her time trying to get past, or explain away, her decision to use a private e-mail system whose security the FBI is now examining.
Sanders faces considerable obstacles once the nominating contest moves beyond New Hampshire.
Despite a long history of civil rights activism, Sanders acknowledged early on that he faces a challenge connecting with Latino and black voters, who will be crucial to the outcome of upcoming contests in Nevada and South Carolina.
Clinton has enjoyed widespread backing from Democratic elected officials, who will play a formal role in the nominating process as superdelegates. As of Monday, Sanders had been endorsed by only two members of Congress and by none of his fellow senators.
Despite vows to get money out of politics, Sanders’s campaign has not suffered from a lack of resources. In the two most recent fundraising quarters, he nearly matched Clinton’s haul. And on Sunday, Sanders’s campaign announced it had taken in an eye-popping $20 million in January alone.
His take, fueled by hundreds of thousands of small online donations averaging $27 apiece, enabled Sanders to put on a robust television advertising campaign in Iowa that matched, if not exceeded, Clinton’s in the closing weeks.
Aides said they expect a new wave of donations regardless of the outcome Monday.