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Eye On Candidates
January 20, 2016

Clinton, Sanders Both Face Challenges in Iowa

With less than two weeks until Iowans go to the caucuses, candidates in both parties are working hard to ensure their followers turn out to vote. Politico has a fascinating pair of articles this morning on the two leading Democratic contenders, explaining in one that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may just not be a good fit for Iowa and suggesting in another that a quirk in how the Democratic caucuses operate could limit Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ability to collect delegates to the national convention regardless of whether he wins the popular vote.

First up, excerpts from Politico Magazine on Clinton’s Iowa woes:

Why Hillary and Iowa Don’t Mix

Over the past nine months, the Clinton team has recited their collective talking-point mantra that she was always expecting a tough fight here, no matter who her primary opponent was, and that she would earn every vote. But privately, they didn’t expect it to be nearly this close—and Clinton herself has scoffed at the idea that Democratic voters would ever really pick “a socialist” over someone so manifestly prepared to be president, according to people in her orbit.

After her humbling third-place finish behind Barack Obama and John Edwards in 2008, Hillary Clinton hit the caucus state this year with an eye on not just victory, but redemption, committing money, time and an immense ground operation in an effort not only to beat Sanders but vanquish the ghosts of ’08.

Instead, she has watched a sickening slow-motion sequel. Bernie Sanders is no Obama, the original anti-Hillary, but he’s pushing her to the edge. With only two weeks to go before the caucuses, Sanders pulled within 2 percentage points in the latest Des Moines Register poll released last week. The problem, according to interviews with two dozen Clinton insiders and Iowa operatives, isn’t with Clinton’s new and improved operation, but with a candidate hampered by her old, familiar limitations.

And what exactly might those limitations be? Here’s how the article explains them:

Hillary ’16 is essentially the same mixed-bag candidate she’s always been: amply informed but often uninspiring, more focused on the tactical task of fileting her opponent than the strategic imperative of delivering a succinct, appealing message—an establishment fixture in an era of populist statue-smashing….

“Since 2008, Clinton’s people have been pretty smart about putting together a really first-rate organization,” says Jeff Link, a Des Moines-based consultant with close ties to former Sen. Tom Harkin, long the state’s dominant Democrat. “In the last eight years she gained all this experience at the State Department, which is great. But experience is not something voters are dying for right now.”

Whatever her shortcomings as a candidate, the article makes clear she has a very well-organized operation in Iowa, and has made winning the first contest of the 2016 nomination process a very high priority. This seems to be a significant change from 2008, when skipping Iowa altogether was apparently under consideration before being rejected:

During Clinton’s first tilt here, many in her camp—especially pollster-strategist Mark Penn—urged her to skip the caucuses altogether, and the candidate’s head was never really in the game. In May 2007, someone (a half-dozen former Clinton staffers told us they suspected Penn, who has repeatedly denied it) leaked a memo from a deputy campaign manager urging Clinton to pull out of Iowa to downplay expectations and better focus on the voter-rich Super Tuesday states….

For reasons that aren’t clear, Clinton is doing fewer events here than in 2008—but they seem better geared to hammering home the point that she’s a humble Midwesterner asking ever-so-nicely for votes. Gone are the large, impersonal rallies that Iowa caucus-goers found distant and insulting eight years ago; gone is the “Hill-o-Copter” chopper she traveled in eight years back, and the 30,000-foot view it implied.

This time, Clinton is going for up close and personal. At her first campaign stop last year, she started out sitting around three folding tables with six community college students in a garage where they learned to fix cars. She nodded. She took notes on a yellow legal pad. She showed an uncanny ability to remember people’s names. She was really connecting. It was going to be different this time.

The article is a lengthy one but well worth the read – if, and it is a very big “if,” Clinton winds up losing in Iowa to Sanders it is quite likely that the explanation for her loss will be found in this article.

For Clinton to lose Iowa, of course, it assumes Sanders wins (former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is still an option, of course, but he trails badly at the moment). But for Sanders, there is a problem as well, one that could at the very least blur what it means to win the Iowa caucuses:

Bernie Sanders’ Iowa rise is powered in part by the college towns where he’s killing it in the progressive communities clustered around some of the state’s biggest universities.

But that won’t be enough for him to carry Iowa in the Feb. 1 caucuses, which explains why the senator who describes himself as a Democratic socialist spent Tuesday in some of the most conservative territory in the state….

The reason is related to worries that, despite strong top-line polling numbers, the Vermont senator’s support is disproportionately concentrated in a few college-oriented counties. Thanks to the mechanics of the complicated Democratic delegate selection process – which limits the number of delegates awarded in each precinct, regardless of turnout – that’s not an insignificant problem.

Ultimately the Democratic nomination will go to the candidate who has a majority of delegates to the national convention. Because of the geographic concentration of Sanders’ supporters, he might win the popular vote statewide while racking up fewer delegates than Clinton:

According to an analysis provided to the Des Moines Register by Iowa pollster Ann Selzer, 27 percent of Sanders’ backers are located in just three central and eastern Iowa counties (Black Hawk, Johnson, and Story) though those places make up just 21 percent of likely Democratic caucus participants.

“There are only so many delegates that are going to come out of Johnson County, so if he wins by a little or by a lot, he could end up with the same number of delegates,” explained Selzer on Tuesday, referring to the home of the University of Iowa. “My speculation, upon hearing he’s in Fort Dodge heading to Underwood, is that there are a lot of delegates out in Western Iowa, so he needs to convince some Democrats who aren’t used to caucusing to get out."

The important thing to realize about the Iowa Democratic caucuses is that the state party has traditionally not released the raw vote totals, instead only providing what they term “state delegate equivalents.” The Iowa Democratic Party helpfully explains what this means here:

At the end of the night, who is determined as the “Winner” of the Iowa Caucuses?

On caucus night, Iowans in each precinct elect delegates to their county conventions, but the winner of the caucuses will be the candidate who accrues the most state delegate equivalents. State delegate equivalents are calculated using a ratio of state to county convention delegates. In other words, the ratio determines how many delegates the candidate would receive for the state convention based on the number of county convention delegates a candidate receives.

This means that even if Sanders tops Clinton in the statewide popular vote, nobody will know, at least not if the past is a guide. Expect the Sanders campaign to demand the raw vote totals if they think it’s closer than the delegate totals, however, potentially adding to the confusion.

The two articles together paint a picture of both Clinton and Sanders poised to win while at the same time having serious challenges to overcome. If Clinton wins the largest share of “state delegate equivalents” while Sanders succeeds in getting the state party to release the raw vote totals and they show him winning the statewide vote, it’s possible that the concerns expressed in both articles will have come true.