Bernie Sanders called it a “virtual tie,” but you can ask Rick Santorum how well that kind of description worked for him when Mitt Romney was (erroneously) declared the Republican caucus winner in 2012. America loves a winner, and it will definitely matter who is declared the final victor in the wee hours of the morning or later.
As of this writing, Hillary Clinton leads Sanders by four out of 1,360 SDEs (state delegate equivalents). It seems the county with the most remaining results is Polk (Des Moines), where Clinton has done well, but there are also scattered outstanding precincts in areas where support for Sanders is strong. Martin O’Malley, as expected, suspended his campaign, ending an incredibly long commitment of his limited resources to Iowa dating back to early 2014.
If Clinton’s tiny lead holds or increases, you can expect Team Bernie to double down on the “tie” description, and perhaps (as was rumored early Tuesday morning) even demand that the state Democratic Party release raw vote totals, which it’s never done and certainly won’t do ex post facto now. But Clinton will have dodged the back-to-back-losses-in-the-first-two-contests bugaboo, which would have been a media nightmare even if — as was probably the case — Sanders had no clear path to the nomination through the post–New Hampshire landscape of states with far fewer white liberals. And she could go for the jugular in New Hampshire itself, recalling that the state kept Barack Obama from an early knockout in 2008.
Postmortems of Iowa will probably stress Clinton’s organization and Sanders’s huge army of young supporters more than anything either of them said at all of those big rallies. Sanders can be expected to stay on his current message unless or until it costs him among Democratic voters. But Clinton may have found a chord in her warning that a Sanders nomination could expose the country to a ruinous Republican administration. And it also became clear in Iowa that her status as the potential first woman to serve as president is as emotionally powerful as the “political revolution” offered by Bernie.