With a virtual tie between Clinton and Sanders in Iowa, Bernie's campaign proves it has serious grassroots power

Support for Clinton or Sanders is clearly split on class and ideological lines, making grassroots voters loom large

Published February 2, 2016 2:45PM (EST)

Hillary Cllinton, Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Jim Young/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Cllinton, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Jim Young/Photo montage by Salon)

Americans may be witnessing — and partaking in — the most unique and interesting presidential elections in the past century. It appears that no one can predict what quite will happen next.

In one of the most surprising developments yet, Sen. Bernie Sanders declared the Iowa caucus on Monday night to be a "virtual tie." On the other side, the Clinton campaign was characteristically confident, declaring victory despite the results being murky.

Clinton earned 22 delegates with 49.9 percent of the vote; Sanders received 21 delegates with 49.6 percent of the vote. In at least six precincts, Clinton earned an extra state delegate because she won a coin toss. She reportedly won all six coin tosses — a 1.6 percent probability.

The chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party called the results "the closest in Iowa Democratic caucus history."

Watching reports on the caucus felt much like beholding a fiery sports match. Viewers trembled with excitement as Sanders slowly and steadily caught up — until, in the last few moments, with the final 10 percent of the precincts being reported, Clinton lurched forward, and began to widen the gap. Then, with a few more percentage points coming in, Sanders leaped into a "virtual tie."

Iowa certainly had the tone of a sports match. The state was hit with a large storm Monday night, but it appeared to have little effect on caucus turnout.

Many of the attendees were first-time caucus-goers, and turnout rates were at a record high, especially among young Americans. The entrance polls also showed Sanders had overwhelming support among younger voters — with 84 percent of those aged 17-29 and 60 percent of those aged 30-44 supporting Sanders. Clinton had the majority of support from Americans aged 45 or over.

A Democratic precinct that had just six voters in 2012 expected 100, The New York Times reported.

Although there is no clear literal winner, a tie for Sanders is essentially a victory; Sanders comes out of Iowa as the effective political winner.

Virtually everything is against Sanders. He identifies as a democratic socialist in a country with a long and incredibly violent history of anti-communist fervor; he refuses to take corporate money and is the only campaign without a Super PAC; Bernie constantly excoriates Wall Street, the political establishment and the corporate media; he never ran as a Democrat until this campaign; and he is clearly non-religious and completely secular in a very religious country.

That is to say, Bernie is a social democrat in a nation that has little to no history of social democracy. He is a true underdog candidate, one that ardently refuses to kowtow to power; he is a stranger in that strange land of status quo politics — but this is precisely what so many Americans like about him, especially those who have been exploited by, rather than those who have benefited from, decades of neoliberalism, austerity and war.

This was made clear in how the caucus panned out. The support was clearly split on class and ideological lines. Rich, conservative and moderate Democrats were strongly in favor of Clinton, The New York Times reported. On the other hand, working-class and liberal Democrats overwhelmingly backed Sanders.

A majority of Iowans from households making more than $100,000 a year supported Clinton, according to polls conducted by Edison Research, whereas those making less than $50,000 annually backed Sanders.

Sanders understands this. In his speech after the caucus, the crowd roared with enthusiasm. Sanders' supporters shouted in joy, applauding his apologetically left-wing rhetoric.

"It is too late for establishment politics and establishment economics," Sanders said.

"We do not represent the interests of the billionaire class, of Wall Street," he insisted. Rather, he called for campaign reform, and pointed out that exemplifies the change he seeks, having broken records receiving millions of contributions from Americans at an average of $27.

"The American people are saying no to a rigged economy," Sanders bellowed, lambasting the system for allowing the 20 wealthiest Americans to own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the population.

He criticized mass incarceration, dubbing it a "disgrace" and condemning its structural racism. He called for schools, and not jails.

"What Iowa has begun tonight is a political revolution," Sanders said.

If Sanders has truly launched a revolution — and, in the U.S., social democracy is admittedly revolutionary politics — his success, or failure, will depend on whether he can continue to grow his mass base. Revolutions cannot succeed without a mass base. What happens next, then, depends on the grassroots.

The fundamental differences between Sanders' and Clinton's campaigns are not just ideological, but political, social, material. Sanders' campaign is predicated on the support from the grassroots, whereas Clinton's campaign has, to this point, largely depended on institutional inertia and fame to push it forward.

To put it simply, Sanders' fate lies with social movements. The masses are the makers of history, as it is said, and if the masses do not mobilize in support of him, his Wall Street-backed multimillionaire opponent will claim victory.

Sanders could potentially break the chokehold neoliberal politics and economics have held on the American people for decades — but only if record-high numbers of people continue coming out to his rallies; if working-class Americans organize in their communities more and more, building a stronger movement.

One should not adopt complete optimism in hope for a new left politics to emerge in the U.S., however. There are certainly reasons to be cautious.

The Sanders campaign was hoping a victory in Iowa could propel it forward. With the virtual tie, it may not lose momentum, but it may not gain much either.

If Sanders could not win in Iowa, where he has been campaigning for months, it is unlikely he can take many other states. He is leading Clinton by a large margin in New Hampshire, the site of the next primary election, but the state neighbors his home state of Vermont, and its demographics are not representative of the nation as a whole.

Sanders now has until Feb. 20 to campaign in Nevada, where he is unlikely to win, and until Feb. 27 for the primary in South Carolina.

Clinton is leading in the polls in South Carolina. Sanders — and the grassroots — will have to work extra hard to try to catch up. There are some reasons to suspect that these polls are rather conservative, in that they inevitably fail to consider the potentially unforeseen impacts of new young voters, but the Sanders campaign would need to really push hard to mobilize these groups.

If Sanders cannot gain large ground in these states, he will struggle on Super Tuesday, coming in just one month, March 1.

Winning a base of support in the South would be important for his campaign to succeed. If Sanders cannot mobilize the Southern working class, he is unlikely to take the nomination.

Moreover, the elephant in the room in all of this are the superdelegates.

The Sanders campaign has invested many of its resources in Iowa and New Hampshire, knowing that presidential candidates who do not take these first two primary states often lose in the overall election.

Even if Sanders were to win the primary election in terms of the sheer number of votes, it is hypothetically possible that the Democratic National Committee could still nominate Clinton, because of the superdelegate system — which is unique to the Democratic Party (the Republican party only has delegates, not both levels).

In short, the road before Sanders is rocky, and laden with obstacles. The growing support for the unlikely presidential candidate, however, shows that he has ignited something in the American public. Perhaps it is the seed for the political revolution he has called for.

Martin O'Malley is no longer a challenger. It was revealed during the caucus that O'Malley was suspending his campaign. He had gotten just a handful of votes.

The Democratic presidential election has narrowed; only Clinton and Sanders remain.

Iowa may not mark a turning point in the election, but it has showed the strength of the Sanders campaign.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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2016 Democratic Primary 2016 Election Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton Iowa Caucus 2016