Last Tuesday, Iowans awoke to a morning that was hotter than usual for the cold and snowy rural state—they had of course, felt the Bern.
The preceding night signalled the beginning of the 2016 presidential race, The Iowa Caucuses. An event which was the first opportunity for American citizens to select the candidate they want to be the next President of the United States.
On offer? A crowded Republican field containing the Cuban-American Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, the Canadian-American Texas Senator, Ted Cruz, and of course the rambunctious tycoon Donald Trump—just to name a few. For the Democrats, veterinary political elite, Hillary Clinton; Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley; and last but certainly not least, a Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders.
And the results? For the Republicans, Ted Cruz with a decisive 3.3 percent victory. For the Democrats, what may only be described as a ‘virtual tie’ between Hillary Clinton (49.9 percent of the vote) and Bernie Sanders (49.6 percent of the vote). The rest went to Martin O’Malley, who has now decided to end his campaign.
To come this close to drawing with the lead candidate is an achievement. In the last five elections (1996-2012), the candidate who obtained the Democratic nomination was at least 6 percent above the second place candidate in The Iowa Caucuses. The results were so close that the remaining delegates (those individuals responsible for selecting the Party’s nominee) were decided on the basis of a literal coin toss—of which Clinton won.
Many polls are predicting more success for Bernie Sanders with a projected landslide victory in New Hampshire next—and if such a prediction becomes a reality, is it safe to say that the Clinton machine is feeling the Bern?
But it was not always this close. After Clinton announced her candidacy and Sanders shortly after, a poll by The Huffington Post on May 4th 2015 asking who was likely to win the Democratic Primaries saw a substantial majority in favour of Clinton with 61.5 percent to Bernie Sanders 9.5 percent. However, when the same poll was conducted on September 22nd 2015, Clinton’s majority had decreased to 44.1 percent, yet Sanders’ had risen to 25.6 percent. Tuesday’s Iowa results suggest that there is now very little between the two candidates.
To explain why the gap has been steadily eroding, we must refer to the three cornerstones of candidate success: appeal, finances and policies.
Both candidates certainly have an appeal. Clinton as the potential first female president making gains in support from women voters and Sanders the outspoken and unafraid reformist, unnerved by embracing the socialist label who is invigorating the younger voting class with talk of a revolution.
Both have demonstrated their abilities to raise campaign funds. Hillary has amounted a huge war chest with an end of year total for 2015 of over $112 million, including a recent $6 million donation from George Soros. Bernie Sanders, despite rejecting donations from billionaires and working with a super PAC (Public Accounts Committee: a committee with the ability to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money by bending campaign finance laws), has surpassed expectations. Sanders boasts a record $3.25 million individual contributions with more incoming. The challenge for the Sanders campaign will be how they can expand on this without compromising his anti-corporate political agenda.
These first two factors give us little to work with, but it is their policies where we find a degree of traction. This is not to say that Sanders and Clinton are opposed on many issues—they are both Democrats after all; but Bernie’s passion and ambition is taking them all one step further.
While Clinton plans to build on Obamacare, Bernie Sanders wishes to replace it with a single payer system. Where Clinton will increase grants for states to invest in education and lower interest rates for students repaying loans, Sanders aims to make college tuition free through a tax on Wall Street speculation. While Clinton plans to tax banks more, Sanders will break them up. Where Clinton intends to raise the minimum wage to $12, Sanders is calling for $15—the list goes on.
Regardless of the economic viability of Sanders’ proposals, they are working wonders on the public.
In a time of political disconnect, staggering inequality and a frustration with the establishment, it is the Sanders’ brand of politics that is preferred: a socialist war cry that is unapologetically radical, audacious and—to use a slogan which helped a little known Senator from Illinois to a victory in 2008—hopeful.
Despite both candidates upholding the core values of the progressive wing of the Democrats, Sanders’ ‘political revolution’ message is contrary to the establishment Clinton. Whether or not Sanders gets the nomination, one thing is certain—his success is hurting the Hillary Clinton campaign.
However, the United States presidential election is renowned for being likened to a marathon, not a sprint. It is not safe to say that if Sanders takes New Hampshire that he will cripple the Clinton campaign beyond repair; after all, a narrow first place finish for Clinton is a huge step forward from her ‘08 campaign where she had finished in third place.
Only if Sanders avoids his passionate ideology being translated into hollow rhetoric and defends against the scrutiny of the Republicans (who are likely to intensify in the coming months)—while at the same time capitalising on the demands of the American people and expanding his grassroots network of support—will he be able to truly pull the plug on the Clinton machine.