KEEP CALM AND...

Unfuzzy Math: It’s Still Hillary Clinton’s Race to Lose

Unless something totally crazy happens, Sanders just cannot get the delegates. Clinton’s the nominee. But how damaged will she be?

01.20.16 5:01 AM ET

Her big lead has melted away in Iowa and she’s behind in New Hampshire, the state that rewarded her in 2008 and that made her husband the “comeback kid” in 1992. The possibility that Hillary Clinton could lose the first two contests has revived talk of a “nightmare scenario” where the Democratic primary race drags on to the detriment of the eventual nominee, who will almost certainly be Clinton.

Unlike the ’08 primary race, which rallied the party and inspired young people and African Americans, the fear this time is that a protracted battle between Clinton and Bernie Sanders would not have the upside of ’08, but would leave Clinton a wounded nominee.

We got a taste of how a Clinton-Sanders fight might unfold when Chelsea Clinton in New Hampshire pummeled Sanders for wanting to dismantle much of the existing health-care safety net, including Obamacare and Medicare, which she claimed would empower governors, three-fifths of whom are Republicans. She left out the part about replacing it with a single payer, Medicare for All program.

It’s fair to ask how Sanders would pull this off, and how he would pay for it, but the normally reserved and above-the-battle Chelsea was so over-the-top you’d think she was talking about Ted Cruz instead of Sanders.

Clinton is facing tough choices now as the race tightens, whether to go negative against Sanders, work harder to reach the young voters that are flocking to him, or focus on rallying her base, which is older voters and especially older women. Not one of the several seasoned campaign operatives and analysts consulted for this article believe Clinton will lose the nomination. Charlie Cook, a veteran nonpartisan handicapper, said, “She faces a month from hell, and she should just tough it out. The more desperate she acts and looks and becomes, the more it will cost her in the general.”

The pre-Iowa boost that Sanders is enjoying is reminiscent of the attention that Bill Bradley got in 2000 during his primary challenge against Vice President Al Gore, a race seen as a coronation much like the Clinton candidacy today. “People like to have options,” recalls Matt Bennett, who worked in the Clinton White House and traveled with Gore. Bradley was a thoughtful senator and a former NBA star, so he had celebrity. “But he didn’t have any of the crowd-stirring moxie Bernie has. If he had, we might have been in the same position Hillary is in now,” says Bennett, who is now with Third Way, a centrist Democratic group.

Bradley had a nice boomlet going, buoyed by the Democratic left, but he lost Iowa two-to-one, and then New Hampshire dashed his hopes when the state’s “undeclared” voters, a good portion of the electorate that Bradley was counting on, went with John McCain, whose maverick campaign on the Republican side had more box office appeal. Today, Donald Trump’s candidacy has the potential to shake things up in unpredictable ways in New Hampshire. Still, says Bennett, if you talk to people at Bernie rallies, “These aren’t folks who are dug in, who would never come around. All these college kids at Bernie rallies are going to be waving Hillary banners by the fall, I guarantee it.”

If Clinton loses Iowa and New Hampshire, her much touted firewall of minority voters in South Carolina and throughout the South will be tested. But even if you give Sanders every delegate in Iowa, plus the delegates from every caucus state and every state in New England, the most liberal part of the country, he’s still got only 36 percent of the delegates, says Cook. His path to the nomination is way, way too narrow. No chance he gets the nomination. Yet Cook says there’s a 15-20 percent chance, “and that might be high,” that Hillary doesn’t get it either. That’s if the FBI decides to take some action against her in the ongoing e-mail investigation, which would mean Joe Biden stepping in. He took himself out of the race late last year, but “if the nomination were going to be handed to him on a silver platter, which it would be, that changes things,” says Cook.

There are concerns about Clinton’s skills as a candidate, and about the baggage she carries after a long career in public life, but her campaign this time is a smoothly running operation free of the rancor and infighting that hurt her in ’08. So what has gone wrong to erode her standing? “I don’t know that it’s right to say anything in particular has ‘gone wrong’ for Hillary in Iowa and New Hampshire,” David Axelrod responded in an email. He managed Barack Obama’s campaign against Clinton in ’08. “Iowa has always been poised for a candidate like Sanders to do well, and she has hedged against that by building a far stronger organization there than she had in ’08. I still rate her a slight favorite to win there.

“New Hampshire is a home game for Bernie, so she is fighting uphill,” Axelrod continued. “Beyond those states, however, the terrain turns sharply in her favor, which wasn’t the case in 2008. Ironically, her firewall may be her gaudy lead among minority voters who went in large numbers to Obama in 2008. Twin losses to start the year would be damaging and surely lengthen the race, which is far from ideal. But even if she does lose them, she would be the favorite coming out of it, albeit a nervous one.”

What Clinton lacks is the energy and passion that fueled Obama’s race to the White House. “Bernie isn’t Hillary’s problem,” says Cook. “He’s the symptom of a problem, a sign of unrest in the country and in the Democratic Party. There’s not a whole lot of energy for her except for women voters who are almost exclusively over 55.”

Younger women have a hard time seeing Clinton’s possible ascent to the Oval Office as something new. There hasn’t been a time in their life when she wasn’t at the center of American politics. If she wins the nomination, the ups and downs of Iowa and New Hampshire will fade into memories. The battles Clinton has prepared for all her life will come into focus and change the contours of the presidential race in ways that no candidate other than Clinton could be prepared for.