Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Clinton, Sanders and how to win by losing

Another such victory and I am undone.
— Pyrrhus

IF, AS Tip O’Neill once said, “all politics is local,” all politics is personal too. The best of America’s retail politicians understand that. Bill Clinton got it. Mitt Romney never did. Two other politicians are learning that now in the classroom of the presidential campaign trail. Last night and this morning, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton discovered the narrow margin between winning and losing, in a neck-and-neck contest for voters in the Iowa Democratic Caucuses.

When it was over, Sanders, the independent senator whose feisty, emotionally-driven campaign narrative has grown him into a populist juggernaut, was defeated, but by the slimmest of margins (less than ½ of 1 percent). And Clinton, the consummate political insider with decades of name recognition preceding her handsomely, was the winner, but with a lead almost too statistically thin to measure.

The storyline in the coming days won’t really be about Clinton’s victory; that was frankly expected. The conversation will spin out of a question political junkies will be asking all day: When is a loss a win? Answer: When a relative political unknown loses to the most recognizable and putatively electable Democratic brand in America, by a margin too small to be anything but an embarrassment to the winner. And a warning.

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We knew it was going to be close between Sanders, a spirited and passionate independent, and Clinton, whose bona fides made her the odds-on favorite from the jump. The latest Des Moines Register poll, released Saturday, had Clinton leading Sanders by 3 full points. The smart money had Clinton topping Sanders comfortably.

So much for the smart money. The final Democratic caucus numbers (Clinton at 49.9 percent, and Sanders at 49.6 percent) made for one of the closest outcomes in primary-season history, a photo-finish in every sense of the phrase.

Juana Summers and Megan Specia at Mashable reported: “While Clinton is a known commodity with a strong organization in Iowa, Sanders's performance here tonight shows that his upstart campaign has real appeal among Democratic primary voters, a sentiment that is likely to unnerve those at the core of the Clinton campaign.”

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A SANDERS win outright would have gone a long way to ending concerns that many Democratic primary voters have about the viability of a campaign waged by Sanders, an admitted “democratic socialist.” But as it is, Sanders’ close loss to Clinton is reason for the senator to feel real strong going into the New Hampshire Primary. He’s been leading in the polls there for some time, and being a known regional quantity (Vermont’s one state over from New Hampshire) gives him a favorite-son advantage.

For Clinton, though, the stakes are higher. A lot higher. With a resume and a public profile that reach back more than 20 years, and resources in the hundreds of millions, Clinton was expected to blow Sanders out of the water in the Iowa contest, the first formal canvass of the campaign season.

The fact that it didn’t will be concerning for Camp Clinton. They’d already been forced to address dark commentaries that suggested Clinton was repeating what happened in 2008, when another upstart politician stole her thunder on his way to the White House. Clinton won on Monday, but despite $45 million in Clinton’s own campaign, and the Priorities USA Action super PAC that supports her sitting on another $92 million, what clearly resonated with Iowa voters had less to do with money and everything to do with message.

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But probably the biggest impact this skinny win will have on the Clinton campaign — what’s keeping the staff and proxies up nights recalibrating their certainties (and Hill’s own) — is the damage done to the sense of inevitability that she’s cultivated, by coincidence or design, since the beginning. The same aura of inevitability she built back in 2008.

When Clinton & Co. war-gamed her 2016 campaign strategy, months ago, Sanders wasn’t even on the radar. No doubt she envisioned facing other opponents — other big-d Democratic opponents. Going head to head with a democratic socialist in the primaries? Never even dreamed of.

Now? Sanders’ hairs-breadth Iowa finish will certainly nudge Clinton to move politically to the left — not far enough to disavow her center-right inclinations (nobody’d believe that anyway), but enough to give other primary voters sitting on the fence a reason to vote for her, maybe. Starting with the New Hampshire Primary on Feb. 9.

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FOR SANDERS, Iowa’s outcome was a pleasant surprise, and if he holds his own in New Hampshire with a win (as forecast now) or another close second, Sanders’ fundraising should grow.

The Vermont senator’s deep-leftist politics and his age (74) are likely to rankle older, moderate Democrats who fondly remember the Clinton years, and some younger voters taken with the Clinton biography. For that and other reasons, it’s thought that Sanders has an uphill climb in the primaries ahead.

“Sanders will face tough odds in Nevada and South Carolina,” Mashable reported. “There, Hispanics, African Americans and moderate Democrats make up a greater share of the voting electorate, and all tend to support Clinton over Sanders.”

But some of the early heavy lifting for Sanders has already been worked out. Candidate recognition got a big assist back in October, when NBC's “Saturday Night Live” featured Larry David as Sanders in a wild skit, opposite the reliably hilarious Kate McKinnon as Clinton. Debates, rallies and political talk-show appearances since then haven’t hurt Sanders, either.

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AS MUCH AS anything, what’s giving Sanders weight in the American political scene is his own sheer dogged determination. He utterly believes in his mission and his message. Americans like that. And it’s paying off.

“ ... [T]he assumption Sanders was simply good debating practice for Clinton disappeared quite a while ago,” the International Business Times reported in mid-January. While Clinton remains ahead of Sanders in national polling, a New York Times/CBS poll this week showed her lead shrinking significantly. In the survey, 48 percent of Democratic primary voters supported Clinton compared with 41 percent for Sanders. Just a few months ago, Clinton was often leading Sanders by double digits.”

That was in mid-January, more than two weeks ago.

Whether Bernie Sanders makes it to the White House is the known unknown right now. But the junior senator from Vermont showed last night that victory and defeat aren’t the inelastic absolutes that maybe we thought. Politics isn’t always a zero-sum-game. For Sanders, in a realm of diminished expectations, it’s possible to win by losing. For Clinton, in a bubble of high expectations (some of them her own), losing really isn’t an option at all.

Image credits: Clinton: Reuters/Scott Morgan. Sanders: AP/Patrick Semansky. Larry David and Kate McKinnon: NBC/Broadway Video.

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