Sanders Beats Clinton 49-49: The Real Story Behind the Iowa Numbers

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters Feb. 1, 2016, during her caucus-night event in Des Moines, Iowa.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

In 1968 the Harvard Crimson ran the poignant headline “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29!” Yale and Harvard were undefeated going into their matchup that year, with Yale a heavy favorite. As expected, Yale got out to an early 22-point lead. But in the last few minutes, Harvard scored 16 unanswered points and bested (tied) the prohibitive favorite. The event and the pithy headline are indelibly etched in history.

Much like football, politics is a tough business. Presidential politics, in particular, is a highly demanding, high-stakes endeavor. So, watching Hillary Clinton lose to Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucus was indeed both a hard thing to observe, but it was also just a part of the game. The only harder thing to watch this political season has been the slowly engulfing irrelevance of Jeb Bush (but more on what his fate tells us about the current political season a bit later).


Some of you will no doubt insist that Clinton got 49.9 percent of the Iowa vote and Sanders got only 49.6 percent of the vote, making the former secretary of state, in some numbingly technical sense, the winner. She lost. Let’s be clear.

Clinton is one of the most prominent figures in Democratic Party politics in the last two decades. She is the wife of a popular two-term ex-president, a former New York senator and a former secretary of state. She is supremely well financed and possessed of unparalleled networks in politics, media and business; she also boasts an enormous number of endorsements. She is as skilled and experienced as anyone on the presidential campaign trail could be. As such, plain and simple, Hillary Clinton should have performed like the prohibitive favorite she is supposed to be.

But that is not what happened. She effectively lost to a 74-year-old Vermont senator with no prior national profile; who had openly declared himself a socialist; who had no super PAC funding or Wall Street money behind him; and who couldn’t call on a veritable Maginot Line of endorsements and cronies and ambitious toadies to grease his path.  

So, yes, I say Hillary Clinton lost. This was a classic David vs. Goliath match, and as in the Bible, David, with his simple slingshot and rock, bested the bigger, better-equipped adversary.


Democrats should quickly have some serious conversation about Clinton’s durable weaknesses. First and foremost, she has never been able to excite the core Democratic base. She was clearly out of step with that base in 2008, a disparity that allowed Barack Obama to snatch the nomination and ultimately the presidency from her grasp eight years ago. Despite the clarity of that lesson, she seems once again to be seriously disconnected from a huge faction of Democratic voters. Just as a message of “change” beat “competence” in 2008, one has to really worry that “revolution” is going to have more appeal and staying power on the campaign trail than “experience.”

Moreover, the Clintons, and now I mean Hillary and Bill, have worked so hard to remain on center stage for so long—zigging and zagging and morphing and message spinning with the best of them—that it is hard for Hillary Clinton to credibly claim to have some major, clear principles and positions for which she has always stood. Bill Clinton’s years in office involved too many deeply regrettable compromises with the Republican right wing. Her own time on the campaign trail has been, until after Obama’s final State of the Union address two weeks ago, astonishingly devoid of a full-throated defense of the accomplishments of the Obama years (thereby implicitly ceding space to the toxic Republican critique of the last eight years of Democratic leadership).


Hence, as she now backpedals, starts to actually use Obama’s name in speeches and tries linking herself to policy accomplishments that Democrats appreciate—such as the economic bailout, saving the auto industry and Obamacare—it feels as if Hillary Clinton is, at best, a little desperate and, at worst, craven, opportunistic and all too plainly insincere in the face of the Sanders challenge.

One great irony of the moment at this point is that Clinton is now banking on black people to save her in the South Carolina primary, shortly after her likely looming loss to Sanders in New Hampshire. This though some African-American voices, such as legal scholar and public intellectual Michelle Alexander, with increasingly pointed fervor, are raising tough questions about whether the Clintons, Hillary or Bill, are deserving of black support. There is every reason to believe that there will be some tough questions raised in the weeks ahead on whether Hillary Clinton is really the candidate for black America. Fair enough. Sensible voters should raise tough questions about her record, her commitments and, frankly, her viability, given the loss in Iowa.


And this is where the case of Jeb Bush becomes relevant. If one thing is clear this political season, it is that Americans on both sides of the political aisle, Democrat and Republican, are weary and distrustful of the old political messages and faces. There is a real, deep exhaustion with all of the usual suspects, including Hillary Clinton.

On the Republican side, viable candidates closely attuned to the passions of the party base stepped forward to run, like Ted Cruz and, especially, a wealthy, charismatic applecart-upsetting political newcomer like Donald Trump. Consequently, the ranks of establishment politicians were virtually swept into irrelevance, including John Kasich and Chris Christie, not to mention Lindsey Graham. This was particularly true of Jeb Bush, who, like Hillary Clinton, began 2015 as the presumptive nominee of his party. Despite the name recognition, despite the money and despite the legacy, he did no better than sixth place in Iowa and pulled only single-digit levels of support.


Imagine a hypothetical, then: What if a Democrat more closely attuned to the passions of the party-base voters had stepped forward early in 2015, like Elizabeth Warren? Or what if there were a wealthy, charismatic applecart-upsetting political newcomer out there among Democrats? Does anyone really think Hillary Clinton’s fate would be appreciably different in this scenario from that of Jeb Bush in the current political climate? I have very serious doubts.

So, the point is that the old, previously unknown, white male socialist from Vermont won the Iowa caucus. He has turned the presumed coronation of Hillary Clinton, as Barack Obama did in 2008, into a real contest, a contest likely to go on for weeks to come.


Sanders’ bold messages on the economy and on the poisonous impact of corporate and Wall Street money on our entire political system are major elements of his success. The well-worn weaknesses of Clinton, in a time of exhaustion with the politics and politicians we have all known for too long, are part of the story as well.

Americans, especially African Americans, interested in finding a successful, progressive successor to Barack Obama need to think very carefully about the choices and decisions and all-important votes that lie ahead. Because things that may have seemed obvious six months ago are no longer obvious today.


Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences and chair of the department of African and African-American studies at Harvard University.

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