Hillary Clinton came to Iowa in 2016 to exorcise what plagued her 2008 failure to win the caucuses. Instead, she ended up with another fight she could not avoid.
“I support Senator Sanders because he has been super consistent,” said Sam Blatt, at 19 a first-time voter and University of Northern Iowa student from Pella, Iowa. “He doesn’t flip-flop on views. But he’s for the people. Like, he’s always been working towards the same goals. And he’s just honest about it.”
That’s the narrative Clinton, who lost those 2008 Iowa caucuses to then U.S.-Sen. Barack Obama during Obama’s rise to the White House, is facing not only from Republican opponents but from one-half of those attending a Monday night Democratic caucus.
Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state, senator and first lady, barely won the vote and headed to New Hampshire knowing a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters opposed her in her return trip to Iowa. Clinton won 49.9 percent of the caucus support to Sanders’ 49.6 percent – a virtual tie – results being reported Tuesday morning showed.
Blatt said he decided last summer to support Sanders, the independent Vermont U.S. senator. “It wasn’t a bandwagon thing; I had already been supporting him,” he said. “And then people kept joining the bandwagon thing, thank goodness. Now we got a bigger base of supporters.”
On the Republican side, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s third-place showing put the spotlight on Rubio as the so-called establishment candidate — the one with the best chance to knock off Iowa caucus winner Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and runner-up businessman and reality television show personality Donald Trump.
The focus on Rubio, though, needs to take into account the passion with which Cruz supporters cast votes in Monday’s Iowa Republican preference vote. “I like his ideas about protecting the country,” Roger York, a retired post office worker at a Cedar Falls caucus, said. “I think that he’ll do well with the economy and I like his stand on immigration.”
“I think he’s honest and a straight shooter,” Bob Leader, 63, of Des Moines said about his support of Cruz in Des Moines’ precinct 20 Republican caucus, which drew 196 participants. “I’m not really sure what policies I agree with. All of them I guess. We need a Republican to win.”
The Iowa caucuses certainly launched the presidential election with plenty of news beyond Cruz’s win over Trump, Rubio’s competitive showing and the Clinton-Sanders tie to go with candidates suspending campaigns. Turnout was huge, with long lines of people waiting to get in and some precincts needing as long as 50 minutes to get started.
“We ended up with just over 200 voters in a precinct we expected to top out at 60 or 70 maximum,” said Tyler Campbell, precinct 55 captain at a Polk County Republican Party caucus.
Iowans eventually got their say before the focus turned to New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary.
Campbell’s caucus was held on the third floor of the Iowa Historical Museum in downtown Des Moines. With three Democrat precincts and three Republican precincts all under one roof, the building housing the museum was buzzing by 5:30 p.m. and didn’t stop until late Monday night.
The downtown location provided a variety of demographics ranging from young professionals to retired couples. Rubio benefitted among this mix of voters. “It was surprising, but this room sent that message in a big way,” Campbell said.
Hardly settled in Iowa
Clinton made a plea for unity during a brief speech in Des Moines Monday night, declaring victory before the final counts were in. “When it’s all said and done we have to be united,” she said.
She acknowledged how close the results were.
“When I stand here tonight breathing a big sigh of relief – thank you, Iowa – I want you to know that I will do what I have done my entire life.” That led to her stump themes of fighting for Americans and standing up for them as they fulfill their dreams for things such as fair wages, universal health care and clean energy.
Sanders promised to press on to New Hampshire and the primaries that follow. “We will transform this country,” he said.
Cruz could claim the win on the Republican side with 28 percent of the vote, but Trump’s 24 percent and Rubio’s 23 percent in the preference vote had them in play for New Hampshire. Surgeon Ben Carson was a distant fourth at 9 percent, with the rest of the field far behind.
“God bless the great state of Iowa,” Cruz told supporters Monday night. “Tonight is a victory for the grass roots.”
“If American people stand together and say ‘we want our country back,’ there is no force in Washington that can stand against the American people, that can stand against the grassroots,” Cruz said. “We are going to do this together.”
The caucus experience
Neila Seaman started at her Des Moines Democratic caucus siding with former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. “Primaries would just be so easy,” Seaman, 61, said. “This is a much more involved process with all this horse trading that goes on here.”
O’Malley, whose inability to gain significant support anywhere in Iowa resulted in him suspending his campaign, lost in Seaman’s precinct. Shifting to Clinton, Seaman said she enjoyed the process. “This is definitely more fun than writing down your vote.”
At an Iowa City Republican caucus Dolores Wilson, 81, a housewife, voted in the preference vote for former Gov. Jeb Bush, who emerged Monday night with a little less than 3 percent of the vote.
“He’s honest and he’s showed that he can handle a big government job,” Wilson said of Bush, who headed to New Hampshire with a lot of work to do to recover from his Iowa showing. “And he’s got a plan to get rid of ISIS, he’s pro-life and he’s just an all-around good fella.”
There were times of humor during this serious business of selecting the next U.S. president. When Liz Mills asked the precinct 19 Democratic caucus in Iowa City if anyone would like to realign after the first show of candidate support, one caucus-goer yelled, “O’Malley for president” and laughed. In a group of less than 20, O’Malley was not going to be viable.
Then came an announcement that neither O’Malley nor Clinton was viable in the first vote. The room erupted into a chant, “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” It was that kind of night.
At another Iowa City Democratic caucus, registration numbers surpassed those from 2008 while people still were in line outside the door.
“I’m not voting for Hilary because of the vote she made a while back to send us into Iraq,” Hazel Hargrove, 85, of Iowa City, said about her support of Sanders at the crammed Democratic caucus held at the Iowa City Public Library. “Too many people have died from that.”
Hargrove said she has been caucusing since she was 30.
Caucus leaders ran out of registration cards when they hit 550 at the library site. The caucus was not called to order until 7:42 p.m. The attendance ended up being 645, most of them supporting Sanders, caucus leaders said.
Clinton supporters were willing to fight back.
“Iowa is not such a predictable barometer,” Kevin Owens, 51, of Des Moines said. “It’s just a matter of time before people realize that Sanders has no foreign policy.”
New Hampshire is critical
Mack Shelley, chair and professor of political science at Iowa State University, said Clinton will have a hard time spinning her results in Iowa.
Shelley told the Iowa State Daily that Clinton will have to prove herself in New Hampshire, where she is running behind Sanders in public opinion polls.
“Sanders can claim to have the momentum in the sense that he fought what at one point was an inevitable nominee for the party,” Shelley said. “Neither of them can claim a clear victory. Sanders can claim momentum, Clinton can claim she won by a whisker.”
Reporters Danielle Wilde in Des Moines, Naa-Ep Barikor in Cedar Falls and Haley Hansel and Hannah Soyer in Iowa City and Iowa State Daily staff led by Alex Hanson and Makayla Tendall assisted with this report.