“I’m going to caucus for Martin O’Malley,” she said. “I don’t think anybody is paying attention to him, and I think they should.” She admired Clinton’s qualifications and considered her nomination assured. “But I have so many female Democratic friends who won’t vote for her, and I worry about that,” she said. Sanders’s call for socialism was too far out; O’Malley seemed like the safe middle road.
You don’t meet a lot of undecided voters at Sanders’s events—at this point, most are committed. That’s not the case with Clinton, whose celebrity draws out people who aren’t sure about her, people who figure she’ll get the nomination no matter what they do, and even people like Engel who have made up their mind to support somebody else.
Most D.C. Democrats still do not believe Clinton to be in much real peril. On Saturday, she pulled narrowly ahead in the final Des Moines Register Iowa poll. Even if she loses Iowa and New Hampshire, the thinking goes, she’ll be saved by South Carolina, where her support among minority voters has given her a larger lead on her rival. (Bill Clinton lost both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1992.) Sanders, however, hopes an Iowa-New Hampshire one-two punch will set off a chain reaction, dominos falling unstoppably as Clinton relives her miserable experience of 2008.
The sensibility of the Clinton voter is recognizably distinct from Sanders’s fans: Clinton voters values moderation, temperance, and common sense, and can’t understand why everyone else seems to be yelling at each other. These are the voters disenfranchised by the current moment in our politics. They don’t want to smash the system, just to improve it. And nobody but Clinton seems to be speaking their language.
“I wish she would take ‘fighting’ out of her slogan—it’s too aggressive,” Jerry Manternach, a 73-year old retired prison counselor, told me, appraising Clinton’s backdrop—a giant blue “H” with the words “Fighting for Us” superimposed. “I’m not angry so much,” he added. “I wish politicians could come together and solve problems without fighting and being bellicose.”
Manternach and his wife, Carolyn, were probable—but not committed—Clinton supporters. They’d stopped by her rally because they were in the neighborhood. “Bernie, he’s just a cool guy,” Manternach told me. “I believe in what he believes in.” But in the end, he gave more weight to Clinton’s experience, he said.
This is Clinton’s challenge: to argue for an extension of the status quo at a time when few people are satisfied with the way things are. Even among Democrats, most of whom support Obama, that’s a tough sell. “There’s still more to be done, but we can build on what’s been accomplished,” Rachel Summers, a 46-year-old city worker, told me. “We don’t need to overthrow everything.”
Clinton, in her speech, cast herself as the candidate of dogged incrementalism and detailed, specific proposals. She pledged to take on the big banks, to bring back jobs, to raise people’s incomes but not their taxes. (In 2007, Newton’s Maytag washing-machine factory closed, taking with it 3,000 jobs.) She spoke briskly and cogently, in well-practiced paragraphs, and took several questions, standing before the audience with a microphone and no lectern. She cast Sanders’s grand plans for things like single-payer health care as destabilizing. She hugged a woman who’d lost her home.