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Bernie Sanders Needs More Than The Tie He Got In Iowa

Sometimes votes have clear outcomes and sometimes they don’t. Monday’s Iowa Democratic caucuses are an example of the latter. Hillary Clinton seems to have barely beaten Bernie Sanders in the closest Iowa Democratic caucus ever after holding a small lead in most Iowa polls before the caucuses. That means Iowa probably hasn’t reshaped the Democratic race for president and Clinton remains the favorite.

But neither Clinton nor Sanders did so well as to make me think either candidate will gain momentum heading into the New Hampshire primary next week. Sanders is likely to win in the Granite State — he has either an 89 percent chance or a 96 percent chance of winning there, depending on whether you look at FiveThirtyEight’s polls-plus forecast or polls-only forecast. Still, the results in Iowa suggest that polls in New Hampshire may tighten. That’s because the states look similar demographically. Even taking into account that Sanders lives next door in Vermont, Clinton probably shouldn’t be behind by 17 percentage points in the New Hampshire polling average right now.

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Assuming Sanders holds on to win in New Hampshire, would that be bad news for Clinton? Although I’m not sure that anyone wants to lose a primary, how she frames a loss in New Hampshire will matter a lot. If she is seen as doing better than expected, she could get a bump (something she is now unlikely to get coming out of Iowa). If, however, Sanders gets good press, he may improve his chances despite the demographic challenges facing him in other states.

We’ve said for months that Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the best states for Sanders demographically. You can see why in the entrance poll taken in Iowa. Sanders won very liberal voters over Clinton by 19 percentage points, but he lost self-identified somewhat liberals and moderates to Clinton by 6 percentage points and 23 percentage points, respectively. That’s bad for Sanders because even though 68 percent of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers identified as liberal this year, only 47 percent of Democratic primary voters nationwide did so in 2008. We’ll need to see if Sanders can do better in a state that is more moderate than Iowa before thinking he can win the nomination.

Iowa and New Hampshire also lack nonwhite voters, who form a huge part of the Democratic base. Can Sanders win over some of these voters? Clinton has held a lead among nonwhites of nearly 40 percentage points in national polls. In Nevada, which votes after the New Hampshire primary, the electorate for the Democratic caucuses in 2008 was 15 percent Hispanic and 15 percent black. After Nevada comes South Carolina, where a majority of Democratic voters will be black. Our polls-only forecast in South Carolina gives Clinton a 94 percent chance to win, and our polls-plus forecast gives her a 96 percent chance to win.

Clinton will continue to be a favorite for the Democratic nomination if she continues to hold a large lead among nonwhite voters and basically breaks even with white voters, as she did in Iowa. Sanders, meanwhile, needs to cut into Clinton’s lead among nonwhites and expand his support among white voters beyond what he won in Iowa. If he does that, he’ll put himself in contention to win the nomination. If he doesn’t, he’ll continue to be an underdog.


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Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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