It wasn’t what she planned on, it wasn’t what she wanted — but it might be what she needed.
Hillary Clinton barely scraped out a win over Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Iowa Caucus Monday night, beating the insurgent socialist by less than half a point, 49.9 percent to 49.5 percent. It was just the narrowest of margins. But as they say in ping pong, a win is a win.
A loss, even by a slight margin, would have been devastating, resurrecting in voters’ minds the upset she had suffered at the hands of Barack Obama in 2008 and leading toward what likely would have been another long slog through the primaries with the ultimate result unclear.
She still may get that. But prevailing in at least one of the two legendary early primaries gives voters some sense that she can win — or at least avoids the perception that she is a loser — and puts her in a position to start playing the expectations game in New Hampshire. There, Sanders is ahead by 14 points in the most recent RealClearPolitics average. If she can even get close to him, she can claim a “win” and perhaps be on her way to the nomination.
That’s because Clinton dominates Sanders in the primary following New Hampshire, South Carolina, where she’s ahead in the RealClearPolitics average of two January polls 62-32.5 percent. There, black voters may step up to save her candidacy, just as they helped sink it by supporting Obama in 2008. Clinton also leads handily in most other states where polling has been done recently.
But with Bernie Fever and unpredictable disease, anything could still happen. Having gotten so close in Iowa, Sanders can and will spin his narrow loss there into a win. If he can use this to trounce Clinton in New Hampshire, he could generate new waves of support in the upcoming primaries, making the Democratic nomination another long slog.
He has every right to his spin. Clinton had been ahead by anywhere from 20-40 points all summer and was leading in polls by about 15 points as recently as last week. But as evidence mounted that she must have knowingly harbored extremely sensitive classified information on her private server as Secretary of State and as enthusiasm for Sanders grew into a kind of political ecstasy, the contest closed and Iowa nearly got away from her.
Sanders also has the rare fortune of facing an opponent under federal investigation. If it becomes known that the FBI has recommended an indictment or if there is new and more damaging information about her possible criminal behavior as Secretary of State, she may become all but unelectable. That could move voters by default into the Sanders camp.
But Clinton at least emerged a near-death experience and showed her fearsome campaign operation and its cadre of Establishment allies can still win when it matters.
This piece also appears on LifeZette.