Eight Factors Worrying Clinton Backers Before Iowa

Eight Factors Worrying Clinton Backers Before Iowa
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Hillary Clinton could lose the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1. Or, to frame the situation the way CNN did with some on-air incredulity Wednesday: A 74-year-old Democratic socialist may beat her in the early contests.

Her slippage in polls and Bernie Sanders’ momentum in Iowa, along with his lead in New Hampshire surveys, triggered a ferocious blast of anti-Sanders messaging from Clinton’s campaign this week, including from the candidate, her surrogates, and release of a new ad.

"Sen. Sanders has some very big ideas, but he hasn't yet told anybody how he would pay for them," Clinton said during a CNN interview Tuesday. Her proposals, she argued in contrast, are realistic and transparent.

The former secretary of state exudes confidence in her campaign, even as she adopts more of Sanders’ policy agenda while trying to portray him as policy-deficient. She accused him this week of being opaque about taxing the middle class (to underwrite the costs of his proposed single-payer health plan) and too chummy with the National Rifle Association when it comes to the liability of gun manufacturers (although Sanders says he has a D-minus rating from the NRA and supports President Obama’s gun control proposals).

Suddenly, a genuine race for the Democratic presidential nomination is before voters, and the two unlikely rivals are expected to lock horns during the party’s next televised debate Sunday in South Carolina.

Here are some factors Clinton supporters said they worried about this week:

--Iowa’s progressive voters rejected Clinton before. The former New York senator finished third in the caucuses in 2008, and while many Iowans in recent polling salute her as the likely Democratic nominee and the candidate best prepared for the Oval Office, state voters seven years ago took a look and decided a little-known senator from Illinois with scant experience was their caucus choice. Will they buck the Clinton tide again?

--Iowa voters are just now beginning to firm up their selections. Clinton’s former 20-point lead in Iowa polls has evaporated. It’s a sign of Sanders’ surging appeal or her weakness, or both. No matter the trigger, the result is a warning signal to her team.

--When you’re known, you cannot be discovered. Clinton is intimately familiar to most of Iowa’s savvy voters. Sanders is a newcomer, and viewed by many of them as having earned his chance to press Clinton.

--Iowans, voting first in the nation during presidential years, delight in the suspense of a real contest. If Clinton is going to become the nominee, these voters are telling her they will test her dominance, not assume it.

--Clinton is confronting demographic hurdles, which Sanders has exploited. The challenge? Voters under age 45 say they favor the Vermont senator by about a 2-to-1 margin, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News nationwide poll conducted Jan. 7-10. Enthusiasm among young people for Sanders’ liberal agenda and his perceived authenticity are on display at his boisterous rallies. And his fundraising prowess has surprised the party’s establishment, which initially greeted Sanders’ White House bid as a curiosity. Clinton has invested in a ground organization, but some of her admirers believe Sanders is better prepared and funded than initially assumed. Losses in Iowa and New Hampshire would be serious setbacks for Clinton, at least for a time. She expects to decisively win in South Carolina at the end of February, turning to her demographic advantage with African-American voters as a backstop.

--Clinton is not a perfect fit for her party’s revolutionary mood in 2016. There is a reason she is chasing Sanders to the left on policy and trying to shore up her bona fides as a politician who broke barriers and challenged America’s political and social systems. She has been an establishment figure in her party for decades. But she is straining to cast herself as a disruptor, in an effort to keep pace with voter angst.

--Clinton’s new attacks on Sanders focus on his policies, primarily on whether his support for gun control is squishy, and whether his call for a single-payer health system in place of the Affordable Care Act is unrealistically expensive, requiring higher taxes on average-earners. Her political aim is to undermine Sanders’ perceived attributes by suggesting the senator is not authentic and not to be trusted. The strategy to undermine Sanders may not shore up her own vulnerable ratings on trust and authenticity, however. And while her campaign believes solid policy proposals are among Clinton’s strengths, many primary voters are drawn to her opponent because of his understanding of them, regardless of Clinton’s reputation as a wonk.

--Why does Clinton want to be president? She tells voters she’s a champion, a history-maker, a fighter, a grandmother, a bridge-builder, a liberal, a centrist, a grown-up, a problem solver, and neither her husband’s bookend nor Obama’s twin. Her “closing argument,” as some political analysts call this pitch to voters to land the job, remains chalky, even if the Clinton brand heading into Iowa is distinct.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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