Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders is No Barack Obama—Iowa is a Ceiling, Not a Floor

In a state where 43 percent of Democrats identify as socialist, Sanders should be doing particularly well.


Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) may end up winning the Iowa caucus tonight. The last poll released before the caucus had him up by three, and the RealClearPolitics average of polls has him behind by 4 points, within the margin of error of the polls being averaged.

Some Sanders supporters are likening a potential Sanders win over Clinton to Barack Obama's 2008 win over Clinton in Iowa. Sanders himself made the point while campaigning in the state yesterday.

"Eight years ago a young United States senator came here to campaign," Sanders said at a rally. "What people were saying is, Iowa is a virtually all-white state and this black guy doesn't have a chance. But what the people of Iowa did is say, 'Hey, we're going to judge this guy not by the color of his skin but by his ideas and character.' And you allowed Barack Obama to win the caucus."

Sanders' electability question, such as it is, however, isn't based on the color of his skin but by his ideas. Obama talked a big rhetorical campaign, but he didn't run particularly to the left of Clinton in 2008. Sanders is running to the left even of Obama. Whatever transformation Obama's supporters, and detractors, may believe he unleashed on the country, Sanders wants to transform that transformation too.

For Sanders, Iowa offers no meaningful test of electability. Iowa was 97 percent white—one of the main points of Clinton boosters was that a black man like Obama was unelectable—so Obama's Iowa victory turned that shaky "conventional wisdom" into a counterfactual.

Not so for Sanders. In fact, the opposite is the case. If Sanders can't win in Iowa, there's a strong case he's not electable anywhere. A full 43 percent of Democrat caucusers in Iowa self-identify as "socialists." That's his floor. Just four percent of eligible Iowans voted for Obama in the 2008 caucuses—so political fervor is helpful too. Between the large pool of friendly voters and the fervor of Sanders supporters, if the democratic socialist can't win in what's effectively a two-person race in Iowa, it's unlikely he'll do better anywhere else.

Even if the worst were to happen with Clinton's e-mail scandals, O'Malley might be more justified in having optimism in that case than Sanders. Sanders is out of the mainstream—his meteoric rise in 2015 and his performance now says more about the ideological poverty and isolation in mainstream American "base" politics and the depths to which Clinton is disliked even among her own party members than his own electability.