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Clinton Will Win the Nomination. At What Cost?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Hillary Clinton has won the Democratic nomination. I've been saying that for a year. Despite Bernie Sanders's impressive campaign, nothing really changes that.

Democratic party actors are close to united behind her. In presidential elections, that kind of support -- not polls, money or even results in early states -- is what best predicts who gets the nomination.

Still, plenty remains at stake for Democrats in the vote in Iowa, where Clinton remains a narrow favorite. The final Bloomberg/Des Moines Register/Selzer polls gives her a three-percentage-point lead, close enough that it wouldn't be a surprise if Sanders comes out on top.

Should Clinton win, the contest will most likely wrap up quickly. As Nate Silver points out, Iowa is one of the best states for a candidate who appeals mainly to white liberals; if Sanders can't win there, he'll likely only win a handful of states at best. By early March or even earlier, media attention will have shifted even more to the Republican side -- at least until the next Clinton scandal, phony or not, comes along.

If Sanders wins? The eventual outcome doesn't change, but the continuing competition will receive more press attention in February and perhaps well into March or even longer. Clinton's shift into general election mode will be delayed. Her focus on appealing mainly to Democrats will continue. 

Don't expect a surge to the Vermont socialist comparable to what Barack Obama received in 2008 after winning in Iowa. Obama was boosted by new support from black voters, who had previously polled well for Hillary Clinton, and from white liberals, many of whom had supported John Edwards. Sanders already has the support of most of his natural constituency groups, and it isn't enough.

Clinton's domination in endorsements matters in addition to whatever influence the party has over voters because many of those supporters will be automatic delegates -- the so-called superdelegates -- who are part of the process on the Democratic side. That will give her a large advantage if the normal delegate count produced by primaries and caucuses is roughly even. 

Granted, if Sanders wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, he'll likely gain some new voters, with the "Hillary Loses Again in Iowa" headline adding to the momentum. But he'll also be at risk when the closer scrutiny comes. High-profile Democrats will rush to support Clinton, since few of them believe Sanders would be a strong general-election candidate.

It's even possible that there are a significant number of "vote Bernie, hope Hillary" Democrats out there: liberals who support Sanders as a means of pushing Clinton toward supporting their policies, but who don't really want him to be the nominee and might switch to voting Clinton if it appears she needs them. 

So if Sanders wins in Iowa, the Democratic nomination fight goes on at least another six weeks, and perhaps all the way to June. And while Clinton still almost certainly winds up on top, every week that she is contesting primaries and caucuses is another week when she will be pressed to make promises to Democratic voters and groups. Though this might hurt her somewhat in the general election, it matters mainly because it could affect how she behaves if she's elected. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net