Neck and Neck

Clinton and Sanders Race to the Finish Line in Iowa

The Democrats are mapping out divergent paths toward winning the first votes of the nomination process.

Clinton Strategist Joel Benenson on Battle vs. Bernie

With a week to go until the Iowa caucuses and the Democratic presidential race there in a virtual dead heat, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are mapping out divergent paths toward winning the first votes of the nomination process.

Clinton, after testing out explicit attacks on the feasibility of the Vermont senator's policy proposals, has settled into a more positive approach, pointing out that their differences have more to do with how to achieve their goals than what those goals are. She's relying on her network of paid staff and volunteers to turn tens of thousands of “commit to caucus” cards collected since mid-April into people who will stand for her at their caucus sites on the night of Feb. 1.

Sanders, meanwhile, is focusing on defusing the arguments against him—that he is too radical, his ideas are too implausible, and he can't win a general election. The Vermont senator seems to be looking for the right balance between directly confronting attacks from Clinton and her surrogates—specifically the David Brock-led super-PAC Correct the Record—and explaining why his more ambitious platform is both viable and better than his opponent's.

In an interview with the Washington Pospublished Sunday, Sanders, who has routinely turned out bigger crowds than the former secretary of state, charged that Clinton’s campaign is “desperate” and that excitement for her candidacy “does not exist and will not exist.” Two hours after the story published, Clinton drew a crowd of more than 900 in West Des Moines and aides gloated that they were seeing plenty of enthusiasm.

While addressing large crowds in Iowa's liberal northeast corner on Saturday, Sanders read off national polls that found him beating Republicans by larger margins that Clinton. He also compared himself to President Barack Obama, who in 2008 faced attacks from Clinton about the pragmatism of his agenda and his lack of experience. Like Obama, Sanders said he believes Iowans won't be swayed by those arguments.

But as Clinton backed away from sharper language of recent weeks, Sanders did too. “I have run this campaign, tried to run this campaign, in a way that we are debating the real issues facing this country and not trying to slam the people or attack people,” Sanders said at Upper Iowa University in Fayette on Sunday, calling Clinton a friend who has dedicated years to public service.

Clinton said Sunday that she feels good about where she is. “I can only react to what I’m doing, feeling, getting responses from people,” she said on NBC’s Meet the Press the morning after winning the endorsement of Iowa's largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register. “I feel really great that we have the level of enthusiasm that we do. And we also have a really good team on the ground that’s been working for months to make sure it’s not here today, gone tomorrow.”

Clinton had a two-point lead over Sanders in the most recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, conducted Jan. 7-10, down from the 41-point advantage she had in late May, the first time the gold-standard Iowa poll was conducted after both candidates got into the race. Her team, meanwhile, remains confident that their early and meticulous organization in the state will put them on strong footing for caucus night. 

Clinton has 26 offices across Iowa, while Sanders has 23 and a paid staff of 103. The Clinton campaign has generally declined to disclose its staffing numbers, but in September had 78 paid employees in Iowa.

Since the start of the year, Clinton has periodically taken a harsher tone on Sanders, arguing that no president would be able to follow through on the kinds of promises that the self-described democratic socialist makes on the stump. “Theory isn't enough. A president has to deliver in reality,” she said Thursday in Indianola. “I am not interested in ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in the real world.”

Since Thursday, though, she’s scaled back on being so explicit, limiting herself to concrete policy critiques centered on two key issues: health care and Wall Street. She argues that her opponent wants to scrap the Obama administration’s achievements—namely the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act—while she wants to build on the hard-won gains of the past eight years.

“Let’s build on what we have,” she said Sunday in Marion, in an appeal to progressives who expected Obama to move faster and achieve more and who may be attracted to Sanders’ promise of a sweeping revolution.

“We have been moving in our nation, thankfully, in a positive, progressive direction. Maybe not as fast as some hope but we keep moving forward,” she added.

Sanders has continued to take on Clinton by name. On Saturday, Sanders praised the crowd in the town of Clinton for getting the Clinton campaign “quite upset” over his rising support in the state. In the interview with the Post, Sanders said he expects Clinton and her allies to “throw the kitchen sink” at him ahead of caucus night but that he won’t take it. “Our campaign is not going to simply sit back and accept all of these attacks,” he said. “We are going to win this thing.”

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Jan. 24, 2016.
Senator Bernie Sanders speaks in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Jan. 24, 2016.
Photographer: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

At a rally at Luther College in Decorah on Sunday, Sanders shifted his focus from Clinton's political strategy to her policies. After stipulating that he wasn’t engaging in “stupid and vicious” attacks, Sanders said he has “enormous respect for her and the years of public service that she has given this country.” But, he added, the two have several policy differences, which he proceeded to list.

“The people of Iowa and the people of American will have to determine based on our agenda and our lives’ work, which candidate is prepared to stand up to Wall Street and the billionaire class and represent working families,” he said.

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