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Clinton’s Iowa Performance Reveals New Fault Lines for Democrats

The Iowa caucuses were much less disappointing for Hillary Clinton this year than they were in 2008. After coming in third to Barack Obama and John Edwards eight years ago, she managed a narrow victory over Bernie Sanders on Monday.

Clinton’s presence in both early contests gives us an opportunity to gauge how Democratic Party politics have changed during the Obama presidency, along with a look at how Clinton’s support has evolved. Because the Iowa caucuses are the first in the nation, they offer an opportunity to look at dynamics within the party before voters are influenced by what’s happened in other states. It’s preliminary evidence — there’s a lot of voting still to come — but the shift in Clinton’s support suggests that her candidacy represents a somewhat different group of Democrats than it did in 2008.

The Democratic Party has historically been described as diverse and disorganized — a patchwork of interests and demographic groups who jostle for control of the party agenda. But after the 2008 Iowa caucuses, it was hard to paint a clear picture of what distinguished the supporters of the three major candidates. In 2016, it’s clearer the candidates attract different groups.

First, the geography of Clinton’s support within Iowa has changed. At the county level, there’s a weak correlation — .16 — between her vote share in 2008 and 2016.


Clinton’s support in Iowa in 2008 was more diffuse across a number of competitive counties, although the counties she won were concentrated in the state’s southwest corner and along its northern border. In 2016, her victories — and Sanders’s — were spread throughout the state. And despite all the excitement about coin flips, there were only 22 close counties this year, compared with 40 counties in which Clinton, Edwards and Obama split the vote pretty evenly last time. This time, there were far more places that went heavily for either Clinton or Sanders.

Clinton’s patterns of demographic support have also changed since the 2008 caucuses. Although she lost to Obama across many demographic groups that year, she drew substantial support from women and from voters all along the socioeconomic spectrum, according to entrance polls. In 2016, a predictable gender gap remained. Both times, she did well with older voters and poorly with younger ones. She ran slightly stronger with female voters relative to how she did overall in 2016 – 53 percent to 27 percent in 2008.

When it comes to ideology, Clinton lost to Obama among very liberal, somewhat liberal and (narrowly) moderate caucus-goers. And while Sanders dominated the very liberal category this year, Clinton won among the moderate and somewhat liberal voters.

The other big shift appears to be how Clinton fared among lower income voters. In 2008, Clinton won about 30 percent of each of the two lowest income groups, under $15,000 per year and $15,000-$30,000. Obama won in all income categories, from the poorest to the richest.

In 2016, by contrast, a stark divide emerges. Clinton won only 41 percent of the under $30,000 vote but dominated the highest two income categories.

What kinds of clues does this provide about the changing nature of the Democratic Party? And what accounts for these changes?

The income differences between Clinton and Sanders voters in 2016 are consistent with the campaigns’ messages about capitalism and income inequality. But if we consider the current race to be a contest about the direction of the Democratic Party, the emergence of a new income fault line is significant. Both candidates have claimed, in different ways, to be the proper heir to Obama’s legacy. They’ve argued about how they’ll build on his accomplishments while altering the status quo. However, the status quo doesn’t mean the same thing to all Democrats. Those who haven’t prospered during the Obama years may be ready for a bigger change.

One piece of conventional wisdom suggests that in 2008, Clinton was the candidate of white voters, while in 2016, Sanders is more popular in areas with less diverse populations. Iowa is a tough place to gauge the impact of race, though the county level changes provide some clues. In Polk County, diverse by Iowa standards – and also the site of a field office – Clinton made some relative gains. By contrast, Clinton actually lost absolute vote share in Montgomery County, which is nearly all white; she won a smaller percentage than in 2008 even though there were only two major candidates this time. Race may be part of the story, but we will need voting results from more diverse states before we can really understand how it shapes her candidacy.

Compared with 2008, the national context is quite different. Eight years ago, primary voters and party elites alike were reacting to a two-term Bush presidency. Despite some differences, Edwards, Clinton and Obama all looked like mainstream Democratic candidates who would represent a welcome change.

Some Democrats probably have the prospect of President Cruz or Trump in the back of their minds. But that’s still a matter of imagination, not real. Instead, the Obama administration is the frame of reference. Sanders seems to represent more change, taking Obama’s early messages even further. Clinton, in contrast, represents continuity with recent Democratic administrations. This division isn’t just about personalities, although the candidates have quite distinct personas. It’s possible people are truly and evenly divided (see also: the American electorate), but fewer toss-up Iowa counties may suggest stronger preferences among voters about two candidates who represent substantively different directions for the party.

Check out our live coverage of the Democratic debate.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”