Since the 1984 Reagan landslide, Iowa Democrats have only lost the presidential race once.
That was in 2004, after a particularly nasty caucus cycle. Young idealists (and a few old ones like me) inspired by Howard Dean were loath to settle for a Kerry-Edwards ticket, and in some places the Kerry folks were less than gracious in victory.
It took a few months to patch things up, months the Democrats never got back.
Last night at the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson Dinner, some of that familiar tension was in the air between Team Bernie and Team Hillary.
Barring an increasingly unlikely breakout by Martin O'Malley, we now have a two way, zero sum race. Clinton's gains are Sanders' losses and vice versa. That usually forces contests onto the low road, a path that the Sanders supporters, drawn to an alternative politics, will find distasteful.
And now that the Endless Biden Speculation is over, the national press will be be playing up Sanders' chances. It's in their interest to make things interesting for as long as possible,
But in doing so, they'll elevate hopes and postpone the inevitable letdown later and later, closer and closer to election day.
The image that sticks with me from last night is of Sanders supporters leaving after his speech, through O'Malley's and into Clinton's.
Sanders leaders are aware it was a bad optic, especially since Press Row was a peninsula surrounded on three sides by Team Bernie while the Clinton sections were on the other side. They're trying to get word out that the early departure was forced by transportation, as the crowd was largely students who bused over. (A problem solved by paying the bus drivers whatever overtime was needed.) And fingers are pointed at the security check in, which pushed the start time back an hour.
But walking out on the other speakers is very telling, especially when your candidate has yet to actually say he is a Democrat.
If I seem more critical of Sanders here, and I am still neutral, it's
because I still see him having a more difficult path to the nomination.
Despite his early state success, The Bern is still almost exclusively a
white creative class phenomenon, and without a dramatic new development
he seems pre-destined to flounder on the South Carolina beach and dry up
in the Nevada desert.
Sanders supporters believe they will win. The rookies can't even conceive of not winning. Neither could us Deaniacs.
Yet it is still very, very likely that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. So: will the people drawn by the Sanders rhetoric (even "it's all about the issues" is a rhetoric) walk out on the fall campaign they way they walked out on Hillary Saturday?
And, in the unlikely but now conceivable event that Sanders is the nominee, will they identify with the Democratic Party, or just with The Political Revolution? Will they vote that ballot down to that moderate state Senator in a must-hold race?
In many ways, Sanders more zealous supporters - not all; I know lots of party loyalists who are for Sanders - are capable of being their own worst enemies, projecting a cult of personality around the candidate who is about issues not personality. In the classic The True Believer, Eric Hoffer argues that the ideological spectrum curves around so that zealots on opposite ends come to resemble each other in behavior and attitude. And Sanders World, bragging about winning online polls, feels a lot like Ron Paul World late 2011.
(STILL the under-reported story of the election: the way Bernie Sanders snuffed out Rand Paul.)
The funny thing is, all three candidates are singing from the same songbook, much as "arch rivals" Kary Perry and Taylor Swift are both singing hooks written by hit factory songwriter Max Martin. The actual policy differences between Clinton, Sanders and O'Malley are trivial, compared to the vast gulfs within the wings of the Republican Party - a fact Bill Clinton emphasized in Team Hillary's pre-rally.
But it's about the style, with Hillary as Top 40 and Sanders as some indie band you probably haven't heard of. Oligarchy And The Billionaire Class are the punk rock version of The Deck Is Stacked For Those At The Top.
The Iowa Sanders folks tweeted out a graphic of their march to the arena, with a caption bragging that they didn't need a pop star. But bashing people for Selling Out is the kind of thinking that killed Cobain. And an A-list star like Katy Perry comes to freakin' Des Moines and gives a free concert? Admit it: that's FUN.
The flip side, of course, is Team Hillary needs to be planning ahead. Sure, Bernie's folks will eventually need to get on board. But Clinton needs to get them on board, which is a tricky task.
The John Kerry campaign never really seemed to make an effort to get the Deaniacs on board; it was just assumed we would go along to Beat Bush. And while we pretty much all VOTED for Kerry - the Nader vote dwindled to a tenth of its 2000 share - a lot of folks did nothing BUT vote. And Clinton may have work to do to get even that.
She's carefully not attacking, which may not be helping but at least isn't deepening the wound. Positions on issues aren't doing it, because Sanders just keeps saying
he was right on DOMA or the Iraq War or whatever FIRST. For now, she's
carefully aiming at the left of the general electorate, embracing the
median of the Obama era Democratic Party where it's understood that the
white male South is gone forever.
Over my 25ish years in politics, I've seen literally dozens of campaigns, local and national, center their strategy around getting non-voters to vote. Only two have ever succeeded: Barack Obama, and the first 19 Bar campaign here in Iowa City in 2007 that got students out for a city election. (The second effort, in 2010, also successfully implemented the strategy, but fell just short.)
Sanders is trying that strategy, and while I wish him well, in the new zero-sum dynamic of the Democratic race, he also need to
convince some of the kinds of folks who care about control of the state
Senate, folks who are largely in the Clinton camp now, that he can be a
team player. Because having a Democratic president didn't do jack for
the teachers and public employees of Wisconsin.