How Hillary Clinton Survives the Iowa Disaster

There’s no way to avoid the fact that her team handled Monday night very poorly. And although the electoral math is on her side, she needs to switch her message quickly.

02.02.16 10:05 AM ET

What was going on with the Clinton campaign? So let’s review. Around 8 p.m., those entrance-exit polls came out, and those numbers suggested that Clinton was going to romp—seven or eight points. Then around 9:00 or so it started to tighten a little. Then a lot. Hmm.

Then, around 10:30 or so, MSNBC and CNN started reporting that Clinton aides were claiming victory. She was less than one percentage point ahead, and Sanders was steadily closing. Then a little after 11 she comes out to speak. First of all she steps on Ted Cruz, the night’s big winner, who was entitled to give his victory speech without being bigfooted. Reporters had been told that Bill and Chelsea were going to speak, but when the time came they didn’t. And then on top of that, Clinton gives this weird speech that wasn’t quite a victory speech, certainly wasn’t a concession speech.

Why did she come out so early? It seems to me it had to be because she was afraid if she waited another hour, she’d have to give a concession speech.

It was very badly handled. Whereas Bernie Sanders was fine. He came out last, and he said what you’re supposed to say in his situation—they wrote us off, we were running against the most powerful political machine in America, and win or lose tonight, look at the impact we’ve had. Yes, obviously. That’s what you say. He hit the right notes.

So now it looks like I’m going to bed without exactly knowing who won. They both won, or neither won. Sanders won because he exceeded expectations—Nate Silver gave him a 20 percent shot of winning the state. Clinton didn’t win in the way she was supposed to, but she didn’t exactly lose either. She dodged a serious bullet by about one inch.

What comes next? As of tonight on Real Clear Politics, Sanders is 18 points ahead in New Hampshire. He’s almost certain to win it. He’s going to have momentum off this result. He could win by 25.

And is there any chance that things can change? Remember, New Hampshire is the state that saved Bill Clinton in 1992, and Hillary Clinton in 2008. There’s a debate on MSNBC this Thursday—remember, with Martin O’Malley having dropped out, it’ll be head to head—and the Clinton campaign will send dozens of surrogates into the state. In 1992, when Bill’s back was against the wall, they sent hundreds. If the Clintons move heaven and earth to try to bottle that old lightning one more time, New Hampshire voters might respond.

They’re unlikely to, though. Sanders will take the state, and in all likelihood he’ll take it by a lot. But the map gets hard for him from there. Nevada is Feb. 20, and South Carolina is Feb. 27. Clinton is the strong favorite in both. Although Nevada is a caucus (caucuses are friendlier to insurgents than primaries), and heavily union, so it could get interesting.

Then come 13 states on March 1. How many of those can Sanders win? I’d guess three, maybe four. Vermont is one. He’ll take that. There are caucuses in Minnesota, and he can probably win that, which would be sorta-meaningful, his first win in a sizeable state. There’s a caucus in Colorado, which might be Sanders country. And there’s Massachusetts, which of course is Vermont’s neighbor. But beyond Cambridge it’s not really a Sanders kind of state. It’s a very Democratic machine state—Clinton slaughtered Barack Obama there in 2008. The other states, mostly Southern, are almost surely Clinton states.

That’s the math. But there’s more to this than math. Politics is more art than science. So what should Clinton, you know, do?

I thought her closing argument in Iowa wasn’t very compelling. These people poll the crap out of these things, so I suppose they were doing what they were doing for a reason, but “the other guy is selling you pie in the sky” isn’t exactly inspirational. She’s going to need to switch gears. General election voters may want to hear about experience and pragmatism. Primary voters want some pie in the sky. Especially at the very beginning of the process.

Last summer and fall, Clinton came out with a pretty solid stream of very progressive proposals. Nobody paid any attention because it was Benghazi-email time. And now she’s sort of stopped. And Bernie’s out there saying “free health care!” She needs to say something that captures the liberal imagination.

Clinton is being challenged exactly on her Achilles’ heel. Her weakest point as a pol has always been her caution. So what does God send her? A guy who’s the most incautious candidate in recent Democratic primary history. “I’m the realist” isn’t going to win her this. She has to peddle a little pie of her own.