The Des Moines Register last night released its final poll in the Democratic race for president before tomorrow’s Iowa caucuses, and Hillary Clinton is maintaining a teensy-tiny lead over Bernie Sanders. Here’s the state of the race: 

Clinton 45
Sanders 42
O’Malley 3

It’s gonna be close. Of course, as Sanders himself has pointed out, it doesn’t really matter that much when it comes to counting delegates whether one or the other comes out ahead be a percentage point of two. Here’s Sanders talking to NBC News:


There’s no question, you know, that what happens here is very, very important. And if we can win and pull off a major upset, it will really be a springboard I think to other states. But at the end of the day, I think in terms of the division of delegates, whether you win by two points or you lose by two points, it’s not going to matter a whole lot.

But the media narrative, while silly, can influence voters’ perceptions of the race, and obviously the story will be very different if Clinton loses a squeaker than if she comes out on top. 

Nate Silver went over this last week


But Sanders would have an avalanche of momentum going for him after wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. The national press corps, which spins even minor stories into crises for Clinton, would portray Clinton’s campaign as being in a meltdown. Momentum usually matters in the primaries — and sometimes it matters a lot — but exactly how many Democrats would change their votes as a result is hard to say. The wave of negative coverage might be especially bad for Clinton, but it’s also possible that, because the media has sounded false alarms on Clinton before, she’d be relatively immune to the effects of another round of bad press. One factor helping Sanders: Voters who had been attracted to his message before, but who weren’t sure he could win, would mostly have their doubts removed after he beat Clinton twice.

Silver now thinks that the latest DMR poll could suggest that momentum for Sanders has stalled: 

It would be entirely reasonable to presume that Bernie Sanders has momentum in Iowa. He’s gained on Hillary Clinton in national polls. He keeps pulling further ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire. And he’s made substantial gains in Iowa relative to his position late last year. December polls of Iowa showed Sanders behind by an average of 16 percentage points; the race is much closer now.

There’s just one problem: Sanders’s momentum may have stalled right when it counts the most.

The Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll released Saturday, for example, had Clinton leading Sanders by 3 percentage points. That means Iowa is close and winnable for Sanders; polling errors of 5 or even 10 percentage points are not uncommon in the caucuses. But it also means that Sanders hasn’t gained on Clinton. The previous Des Moines Register poll, released earlier in January, showed Clinton up by 2 percentage points instead.

If Sanders fades, it may mean that Hillary Clinton, who remains popular among Democratic voters, was who we thought she was: the near-inevitable candidate with powerful establishment backing and a case that she’s the best choice to deliver general election victory. But let me put forward another idea: if Sanders fails to clip Clinton’s wings, it will be because he didn’t do much to attack her where she’s most vulnerable with the Democratic base — on her hawkish foreign policy. While Democratic voters might prefer single payer to Obamacare, they still like Obamacare! The disagreement with Clinton is one of political tactics. But when it comes to Clinton’s dalliances with bellicose neoconservative adventuring, they actually just vehemently disagree with her on the merits! The most famous disagreement, of course, was over the Iraq War and that was one of the biggest reasons that the last insurgent candidate to take her on, Barack Obama, defeated her. 


Sanders focuses almost exclusively on economic issues and inequality, and clearly he has mobilized a powerful base of support around those issues. Indeed, precisely those issues have brought him more success than any pundit predicted. But he has been relatively muted on foreign policy, where the Democratic base has a much deeper split with Clinton. It’s an interesting counterfactual: what if a candidate kind of like Sanders had also been very vocal about criticizing Clinton from the left on her tendency toward aggressive interventionism? I think Clinton would be much more vulnerable if an insurgent left-wing candidate linked their critiques of Clinton’s incrementalism on economic and inequality issues to her judgment on foreign policy issues. 

The funny part is that, with some exceptions, Sanders own votes and positions on foreign policy put him in a pretty good position to lodge these kinds of attacks!

Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic notes:

Bernie Sanders has exhibited much better foreign-policy judgment than Hillary Clinton. Yet for some reason, that’s made little difference so far in the Democratic primary race.

Daniel Larison at the American Conservative contemplates why this might be so, concluding that it’s partly simply an issue of emphasis — Sanders is just more passionate about economic issues:


For her part, Clinton has been trying to obscure her hawkish record, and so her record of bad judgment may not be as visible as it was in 2007-08. Sanders’ rising poll numbers have already caused Clinton and her supporters to overreach and remind Democrats of Clinton’s poor judgment when they launched an attack on Sanders for supposedly being too “soft” on Iran. Maybe Sanders thinks Clinton will discredit herself as the campaign continues. More likely, he wants to fight the campaign primarily on domestic issues because that’s what he cares about most and that’s where his greatest strengths with Democratic voters are.

Larison also notes that Sanders himself has sometimes backed Clinton-style hawkish policies, particularly in siding with President Obama (ultimately, a full-throated critique along these lines might demand a critique of certain Obama policies, which Sanders might be loathe to do in a Democratic primary; when Obama himself ran, of course, he could link critiques of Clinton’s Iraq vote to a critique of George W. Bush).

Bizarrely, Clinton seems to be pressing the good fortune she’s enjoyed in not being attacked from the left on foreign policy by trying to attack Sanders from the right, Foreign Policy reports

Heading into the home stretch of the unexpectedly close Iowa caucus, an anxious Hillary Clinton is increasingly wielding foreign policy and national security as a weapon against Bernie Sanders — an unexpected and high-risk approach that could backfire on the Democratic front-runner. … 

[W]ith Clinton leading narrowly in Iowa but Sanders leading by large margins in New Hampshire, she is taking a different tack, hammering him for his alleged naiveté on Iran, Russia, and other hot-button issues. Clinton calls it the “let’s get real” period. …

On Jan. 21, Brian Fallon, Clinton’s national press secretary, called the senator a “caricature” of the dovish Democrat that hawkish Republicans love to use as a punching bag. …

On the Clinton campaign’s attacks on his national security record, Sanders told Foreign Policy Wednesday: “This is how I respond to it: The major foreign-policy issue in the modern history of this country was the war in Iraq. I voted against the war in Iraq; she voted for the war in Iraq.”