A Tie in Iowa Is a Win for Hillary

Iowa’s Democratic base is among the nation’s whitest and most liberal—but Clinton has a stronger edge almost everywhere else.

Jae C. Hong / AP

It sounds like laughable pro-Hillary spin but it’s true. For Hillary Clinton, a virtual tie in Iowa was an accomplishment.

That’s because, demographically, the Hawkeye State was her worst nightmare. Among the Democratic Party’s three major constituencies—racial minorities, white moderates, and white liberals—Hillary has always fared worst among the latter. In 2008, she lost voters in Iowa who described themselves as “very liberal” (almost all of whom were white) to Barack Obama by 24 points. Among self-described “moderates,” by contrast, she lost by only two points. This year, she lost “very liberal” Iowans to Bernie Sanders by 19 points. Among “moderates,” she beat him by 23 points.

The problem for Hillary is that in the Iowa Democratic Party, white liberals rule. Last summer, FiveThirtyEight created a chart of the states in which white liberals constituted the highest percentage of 2008 Democratic primary or caucus goers. Iowa came in third.

Part of the reason is that Iowans are unusually dovish. Historically, the “peace churches”—Quakers, Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren—have thrived there. Henry Wallace, the most famous Democrat in Iowa history, left the party in 1948 in opposition to Harry Truman’s containment policy toward the Soviet Union. In 1972, George McGovern, running on his passionate opposition to the Vietnam War, came in a surprise second in the state, which helped catapult him to the Democratic nomination. By contrast, the most hawkish candidate in the Democratic field, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, finished last in Iowa in both 1972 and 1976. Al Gore, the most hawkish candidate in the 1988 Democratic field, skipped the Hawkeye State. So did Joe Lieberman, the most hawkish Democratic running in 2004. A 2011 Bloomberg study found that as a percentage of GDP, Iowa received the fifth fewest defense dollars in the country.

Because of her vote for the Iraq War, Iowa’s dovishness was a huge problem for Hillary in 2008. It’s part of the reason that in May 2007 her deputy campaign manager urged her to pull out of the state. That would have been a good idea since she she ultimately finished third, behind not merely Obama, but John Edwards as well.

In this year’s campaign against Sanders, foreign policy played a smaller role. But Iowa’s liberalism still caused Hillary fits. On Monday, 68 percent of Democratic caucus goers defined themselves as “liberal,” compared to only about 40 percent of Democrats nationally. According to a Des Moines Register poll released in January, 43 percent of Iowa Democrats called themselves socialists.

The bad news for Hillary is that New Hampshire boasts an even higher percentage of white liberals than Iowa. (The only state that tops them both is Bernie’s Vermont.) The good news is America’s 47 other states get to vote too. In 2008, white liberals comprised 50 percent of the caucus goers in Iowa and 54 percent in New Hampshire. But they comprised only 29 percent in Nevada, where Democrats will vote on February 20, 19 percent in South Carolina, which votes after that, and 17 percent in Texas, which votes on March 1. Overall, notes David Wasserman in The Cook Political Report, 98 percent of Democratic delegates come from states with a lower percentage of white liberals than Iowa and New Hampshire.

In blue-collar states where white Democrats are more moderate, Hillary has a big edge. It’s worth remembering that most stuck with her in 2008 even after Obama became the frontrunner. In South Carolina, for instance, white voters favored Hillary over Obama by 12 points. In Pennsylvania, they backed her by 20 points. In West Virginia, they backed her by 44 points.

Obama triumphed nonetheless by forging a coalition of white liberals and racial minorities, but there’s little evidence so far that Sanders can win over the latter. Today, Hillary Clinton is almost as popular with African Americans as Obama is. In South Carolina, polls last month showed her winning 80 percent of the African American vote.

The hype surrounding Sanders’s near-tie in Iowa conceals Hillary’s accomplishment. Yes, his rise from obscurity was impressive. But so was Hillary’s rise from 30 percent of the vote in 2008 to 50 percent in 2016 in a state where she remained ideologically vulnerable. Her organization there, overseen by her Iowa-obsessed campaign manager Robbie Mook, was far superior this time. She may not have inspired Iowa Democrats like Bernie did. But she got them to the caucus sites in roughly equal numbers. And she lived to fight another day, on more hospitable terrain.