Littwin: What if Bernie Sanders wins Iowa?

Late polls show Hillary Clinton has a small lead over Bernie Sanders in Iowa.


It is the morning of the Iowa caucuses, and hope – if not change — is in the air. The respected Des Moines Register poll confirms what most late-breaking polls in Iowa have suggested — that Hillary Clinton holds a slim lead. Meanwhile, Nate Silver concludes that Clinton may win in Iowa after all.

The sound you hear is that of the Democratic establishment — panicked by the thought of Bernie Sanders winning in Iowa — preparing to breathe out.

And maybe they’re right. But if they are, it would be the first time anyone has been right in this entire election season.

Looking back, you can see how Sanders came to present such a challenge for Clinton. It may be unfair to lump the Bern with the Donald, but you can link the anger and disappointment of their supporters and the willingness, in either case, to take a pass on electability. The economy is stagnant. The world exploding. And if it was ever thus, it was never thus with cable TV and the Internet so deeply in the mix.

And so, on the Democratic side, Sanders can represent the call for Democratic idealism in the face of cynical Washington politics, while Clinton is stuck defending, among other things, $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. And there you have a race. On the Republican side, you have Trump going on about a wall Mexicans will pay for to keep murderers and rapists and Muslims and bimbos on their side. And there you have a race?

How does electability fit into any of that? It doesn’t.

Still, for Democrats, the question in Iowa is not only who wins, but whether the campaign continues. A Clinton loss would bring more jokes about inevitability, especially come November. But with establishment backing, with super delegates in tow, with big polling leads among minority voters, with Obama’s near endorsement, Clinton would still be strongly favored to win the nomination. But if Sanders loses in Iowa — a near-perfect state for him — his long-shot chance at the nomination would leave on the first plane out of Des Moines. And the odds for a long slog — recalled so vividly from 2008, when it all started with a Clinton loss in Iowa — suddenly becomes much longer.

Not that Sanders would pull out. He’s raising money as if grass-roots politics were a real thing — and maybe it is. He got into the race as a message candidate, and, whatever happens, he’s got plenty of message left, which is why he’s saying that if a nervous Clinton suddenly wants more debates, she’s going to have to schedule them well into May.

If Clinton pulls out the win, it would be a victory for, well, caution. History tells us that 74-year-old Jewish socialists are 0-for-forever in U.S electoral politics. And, with or without a history lesson, Clinton is counting on the risk presented by Republicans threatening to blow up their party by nominating Trump – and if not Trump, then Ted Cruz — to push her over the line in Iowa.

There is much to love about the Bern. The accent. The hair. The grumpiness. The prospect of more Larry David on SNL. The focus on Big Capitalism, on income inequality. You can even like the crazy idea that someone actually believes that America, after the long fight over Obamacare, is ready for another fight over Medicare for All.

But while we’ve never seen anything quite like Bernie before, we have seen many sort of like him — say, McGovern, McCarthy, Dean for starters — and we know how they turned out.

Sanders is running on two electoral principles — one, that if nominated, he can win in November; two, most people are ready to join Sanders in a political revolution. The evidence for either principle is, let’s say, scant. In the first case, you should ignore the one-to-one polling. Remember how Dukakis was Willie Hortoned and Kerry was swift-boated and Gore was Internetted and then just imagine the targets offered by a 74-year-old socialist. If there’s anything we know about Clinton, it’s that she’s well prepared for Republican attacks. As for the revolution, ask Obama how his plan to transform America worked out. Meanwhile, much of the, uh, liberal media have been giving Sanders’s plans on health care reform and free tuition and job creation surprisingly tough reviews.

Still, you know it’s getting serious when the headline in The Wall Street Journal says that Sanders is using a new weapon — going negative. Sanders is now even going after Clinton on her emails, which doesn’t seem exactly Bernie-like.

Yes, we all remember the line from the debate about the damn emails, but don’t be shocked. A chance at victory challenges anyone’s principles, particularly when a few votes could change everything. If Sanders does somehow win in Iowa, he’s ready to go to New Hampshire, where he leads in all the polls. Clinton would still be favored to win the nomination — many presidents have lost in Iowa — but momentum would shift, Clinton’s vulnerabilities would seem even more obvious, and in one night, the impossible would become the improbable and who knows where it could go from there.

I can see the prospect of many liberals rejoicing — at least until someone notices the guy with the orange hair and how he’s got the biggest smile in the room.


Photo credit: Phil Roeder, Creative Commons, Flickr


  1. “Sanders is running on two electoral principles — one, that if nominated, he can win in November; two, most people are ready to join Sanders in a political revolution.”

    You politely don’t mention the impact of the revolution for the 2008 Obama, that morphed into “Organizing for Action.” Their impact on healthcare resulted in a “skin of our teeth” win for a watered down plan; on Guantanamo, an operating gulag 7 years into the Obama administration; and on a transformation of the Democratic Party into historic margins for Republicans in Congress and state legislatures.

  2. so what. It’s just Iowa. Iowa doesn’t always predict who is going to win the nomination. Let’s see who wins the delegate count after the primaries. If your a democrat, you had better worry about the makeup of the congress, because they are the ones who legislate, not the president.

  3. You seriously underestimate Sanders nationwide appeal, and the polls that show he has a much better chance of beating Trump, Cruz or Rubio in November than Hillary does. Bernie has far more experience at governing and in Washington politics, and far more admiration from Independents and Republicans than Hillary ever will. This thing ain’t over by a long shot.

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