Bernie Sanders Exploits Hillary Clinton's Flaws In A Way Most Republicans Can't

What Iowa revealed about her election prospects -- and what it didn't.
Hillary Clinton can't match Bernie Sanders' progressive bona fides, but that wouldn't be a problem in the gene
Hillary Clinton can't match Bernie Sanders' progressive bona fides, but that wouldn't be a problem in the general election.

The tally from the Iowa caucuses shows that Hillary Clinton got more delegates than Bernie Sanders. But nobody outside of Clinton headquarters thinks she won anything.

Clinton took 701 “state equivalent delegates” from the caucuses, according to the Iowa Democratic Party, while Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, took 697. Basically, they tied.

The result represents a remarkable achievement for Sanders, who entered the race with virtually no name recognition and who once trailed in the polls by 50 percentage points. It’s also a blow to Clinton, the presumptive front-runner who now faces an extended fight for her party’s nomination, with her liabilities as a candidate on full display.

But it's easy to get carried away with results like this -- to assume that votes from supporters of one party, in one unrepresentative state, reveal how the rest of the party will pick a nominee or how the rest of the country will pick a president. In this case, they may not.

Most experts think Clinton remains the strong favorite to win the nomination, that she will begin to win contests once the campaign moves past New Hampshire -- and onto states where the electorate is more diverse and less liberal. And while Clinton has some serious vulnerabilities, at least some of those vulnerabilities would matter less in the fall, when she would be running against a conservative rather than a fellow progressive.

Within the Democratic primaries, Sanders seems to be a pretty good foil for Clinton. One reason is that he holds the same essential priorities that she does, but can promote himself as more of a true believer.

Both favor a higher minimum wage, for example, but he would raise it to $15 an hour while she would bump it to just $12. Both believe in universal health care, but he favors creating a single-payer system while she prefers incremental improvements to the Affordable Care Act. Both want to help families struggling with tuition bills, but Sanders would make college free while Clinton would distribute assistance more selectively and with work requirements. 

These positions are exactly what liberals, like the kind who dominate the Iowa caucuses, want to hear.

In a general election matchup, against a Republican, the contrast would look different. Clinton would be the one arguing for the higher minimum wage, because her opponent would oppose any increase at all. She’d be calling to provide people with more protection from medical bills, while her opponent would be seeking to yank insurance away from millions. She’d be the one talking about helping families with tuition bills, or giving new parents paid leave, while her opponent would be the one promising to slash taxes for the rich.

And on all of these issues, she would be closer to the public’s views than the Republican would be.

Elections don’t simply turn on policy positions, of course, and Sanders' agenda is not the only reason he’s made such inroads with Democratic voters. Like Donald Trump in the GOP primaries, Sanders has mastered the “meta-message” -- conveying, through his affect and willingness to pick fights, that he is a champion of the little guy and scourge of the elites. Clinton, a creature of Washington who abides by its political conventions, cannot pull that off. That really could hurt her in the general election. 

But all candidates have liabilities and the Republicans, unlike Clinton, seem to be acquiring new ones. Thanks to Iowa, the GOP contest is shaping up as a three-way race, pitting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (who won Iowa) against Trump (who came in second) and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (who finished third). The GOP establishment is celebrating the strong showing from Rubio, the supposed moderate and most electable of the three.

But to survive politically, Rubio has disavowed his earlier support for immigration reform, vowed to appoint Supreme Court justices that would roll back same-sex marriage, and taken a position on abortion -- no exceptions for rape and incest -- that puts him to the extreme right even of the GOP field.

Exit polls showed a sharp generational divide among caucus-goers. Clinton's big weakness, as HuffPost's Zach Carter notes, was among young voters -- and the margins were lopsided, with Sanders winning 84 percent of voters ages 17 through 24. But Rubio’s positions on immigration and same-sex marriage, which Cruz and Trump more or less share, would be positively toxic in this generation.

In other words, the college students who stood up for Bernie in Iowa caucus halls last night probably won’t hesitate to pull Clinton’s lever in the fall. Throw in the support Clinton is likely to get from African-Americans and Latinos, two groups that hold her in high regard, as well as her very real assets as a candidate and potential president, and suddenly it’s easy to remember why so many people thought she was formidable in the first place.

It’s still possible that Clinton could lose to Sanders, who has his own skills as a campaigner and whose position on certain issues, like trade, might even win over some Republicans. It's also possible Clinton could lose a general election matchup to Rubio -- or to Cruz or even to Trump. The U.S. electorate is sharply divided, after all. The economy is creating jobs, but a majority of people think the country is headed in the wrong direction. It wouldn’t take much to tip the final result one way or another.

But the candidates in one party are getting weaker as the nomination contest unfolds and it’s not the Democrats. If anything, a hard-fought, substantive contest between Sanders and Clinton might actually make better campaigners out of them both, leaving the party with a candidate in a strong position to win this fall.