The Two Big Obstacles to a Sanders Win in Iowa

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission
“This bothers me.” Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call

Heading into Iowa’s homestretch, polls show Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton running neck-and-neck. But those numbers ignore two big hurdles lined up on the socialist senator’s side of the track — obstacles that give Clinton a handicap in the caucuses next Monday night.

1. Sanders draws much of his support from unlikely voters.

Every candidate running against the Establishment is also, to a degree, running against the established electorate. After all, longtime voters are the ones who elected the “Washington cartel” to begin with. So it isn’t surprising that Sanders draws much of his support from first-time voters. The trouble is, first-time voters have a habit of becoming “next time” voters.

In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign was able to turn out such unlikely caucusers with hope, change, and a multimillion-dollar ground operation. But Sanders appears even more dependent on unreliable constituencies than Obama was eight years ago.

Whereas Sanders has led in three of the last four polls of random Iowan phone numbers, he has trailed in all five recent surveys based off the state’s voter-registration files. As the New York TimesNate Cohn notes, even Sanders’s most encouraging recent poll – a CNN/ORC survey that showed him leading Clinton by eight points – had him 17 points back among those who caucused in 2008. Likewise, Clinton leads Sanders by only two points in the latest Des Moines Register poll, but is ahead by nine among those who say they will “definitely vote.”

Sanders’s surprising competitiveness is, of course, built off his overwhelming popularity among younger voters. A recent NBC/Marist poll found Sanders winning 64 to 29 among Iowa voters under 45 – and no demographic is less likely to vote than the Americans who understand Snapchat. In 2012, just 45 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds found their way to a polling station.

The Sanders campaign does draw big crowds, has an army of volunteers, and seems able to channel that metaphysical quality knowable only to our pundit-shamans – “momentum.” So it may just be able to get these millennials to put down their smartphones for a night of caucusing. But when they do, they could find themselves smacking into roadblock No. 2 

2. Sanders could turn out more supporters than Clinton, and still lose.

The Democratic primary isn’t a democratic primary: The winner won’t be determined by raw vote totals but by the allocation of delegates. This is especially significant for the Iowa caucus, where delegates are assigned on a geographic basis.

The young voters propelling Sanders’s candidacy are heavily concentrated in the state’s college towns. More than a quarter of his supporters live in just three of Iowa’s 99 counties. No matter how fiercely those counties #feeltheBern, they will still award only 12 percent of the state’s 1,401 delegates. So even if a majority of Iowans caucus for Sanders on Monday night, if those Sandernistas aren’t spread out across the state, Clinton could still win by a wide margin.

Last week, Politico reported that the Sanders camp was devoting more resources to the state’s rural western regions. But the Clinton camp has been organizing in those areas for months – and enjoyed considerable success there in 2008. Although Obama was ultimately able to compete in Iowa’s red counties, he got a boost from a quirk of the calendar. MNSBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald explains:

In 2008, the caucuses were held on Jan. 3, when most college students were home on winter break. That meant that Obama’s army of young supporters could caucus at their parents’ homes all over the state, and not waste their support in Johnson or Story counties, home to the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, respectively.

The Sanders campaign has offered to provide transportation to college supporters who would be more effective caucusing in their home districts, but that’s a hard sell on a school night, Seitz-Wald reports.

That said, Sanders’s “political revolution” has overcome an astounding number of obstacles to get where it is today. He’s drawn close in the Iowa polls despite receiving virtually no support from his (recently adopted) party’s elected leaders, big-dollar donors, or interest groups. He’s built a lead in New Hampshire despite facing an opponent whose popularity and prominence among Democrats is unique among history’s non-incumbent presidential candidates. So no one can confidently rule out the possibility of a Sanders victory on Monday night. But so long as the polls are tied, the Vermont senator is (probably) losing.