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Sanders’ Prospects After Iowa Continue to Rest on Multiracial Working Class

Steven Sherman Feb 7

The Iowa caucus ended more or less in a tie. There are four metrics to measure the results—first round, second round, state delegate equivalents and pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention. It’s now clear that Bernie Sanders won the first round by more than 6,000 votes, and more narrowly won the second. Pete Buttigieg currently leads by two state delegate equivalents out of about 2000. Both Sanders and Buttigieg are likely to walk away with 11 pledged delegates. 

Sanders’ strong performance among the multiracial working class was due to remarkable organizing on the ground.

Ultimately, bragging rights about winning Iowa are more important than the trivial number of pledged delegates to this summer’s national convention. So it is not surprising that both Sanders and Buttigieg have claimed victory. Unlike a contested presidential election, the stakes are not clear. You do not become president because you narrowly won the Iowa caucuses. In any case, bragging rights for Iowa 2020 were successfully squashed by some mixture of incompetence and malfeasance on the part of the Democratic establishment. 

The latter’s commitment to turning elections into yet another opportunity to pay off private interests, in this case app developers, is now making it impossible to hold minimally fair primaries with promptly reported results. Trump supporters who tied up a hotline whose number was unfortunately posted online didn’t help matters, a reminder that there are many threats to democracy in the United States. 

It is nevertheless possible to offer some analysis of what happened. Bernie did not reach the sky-high expectations of his supporters (and that his detractors feared), which were widespread on the weekend before the caucus. But this should not obscure that this was the culmination of a remarkable political comeback. 

Only about four months ago, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight was declaring that, based on polls, it was now a two-person race, between Warren and Biden. This was before the heart attack, before AOC’s endorsement, which was followed by endorsements from a variety of national progressive politicians, social movement organizations and union locals. It was before Sanders’ national army of donors and volunteers began moving in earnest. And it was before Warren proved unable to navigate the challenge of staking out a strong progressive position (single-payer healthcare) and the Charybdis of reassuring her middle-class base that their taxes would not rise. And before the people of Iowa got a good look at Joe Biden. 

Although Sanders did not score a decisive victory in Iowa, because Biden cratered and Warren was clearly in third place, he emerged from Iowa as the clear frontrunner. Today, FiveThirtyEight puts the odds of Sanders winning the nomination at 1 in 2. 

Sanders’ coalition in Iowa bears little resemblance to that with which he came close to tying Clinton in 2016. (If all the metrics were available from that caucus, it probably would also look like a tie.) In 2016, in Iowa and everywhere else, Sanders did strong outside the major cities. In 2020, he won the cities and the college towns and lost the rural areas and suburbs. He remains the candidate of young people but is stronger with the multiracial working class in cities. The New York Times says 38 percent of nonwhite voters backed Sanders in Iowa, more than any other candidate. Buttigieg, his closest overall competitor, received 12 percent. 

Sanders’ strong performance among the multiracial working class was partly due to remarkable organizing on the ground. Hopefully, his momentum can compensate for the difficulty in replicating this in the less “retail politics” states bunched up on Super Tuesday. According to the Washington Post’s numbers, a large plurality of “very liberal” caucus-goers also went for Sanders — 43 percent to Warren’s 28 percent. Locking both Sanders and Warren in Washington for the impeachment hearings the weeks before the caucus probably hurt them at least a little. 

Buttigieg emerged as the centrist of choice. He did especially well in the 45 to 64 age category and won a narrow plurality of college graduates — 23 percent to Warren’s 19 percent, Klobuchar’s 17 percent and Sanders 16 percent. The Southbend mayor also won the “somewhat liberal” category with 27 percent while tying with Biden in the “moderate” category at 25 percent.  

Sanders and Buttigieg tied among voters concerned about health care and climate change (on the former, I suspect for very different reasons) and very narrowly defeated Biden — 24 percent to 23 percent — among voters more concerned about defeating Trump than any other issue. 

Warren’s 18.4 percent in the first round was perhaps better than expected, given the aimless quality of her campaign since the healthcare issue. She has tried to recenter herself on a theme of “women win,” which makes her sound like Clinton 2016 and aligns with Klobuchar and Harris and Gillebrand. Her message of “big structural change” has often been obscured. Her 18 percent among women matched her overall total and was third behind Buttigieg and Sanders. In the categories she did well in, among “very liberal” voters and supporters of “replacing private health insurance with a single government plan” she was a distant second to Sanders. She did beat Sanders among college graduates, 19 percent to 16 percent. 

Going forward, it appears the main options are Sanders or no clear winner before the end of the primaries.

Biden’s 15 percent was shockingly bad for the frontrunner in national polls. It is not clear that this is the knockout blow many have assumed. Though FiveThirtyEight has dropped his odds of winning the nomination to 1 in 5 — in third behind Sanders and no majority — he was the clear choice of those over 65 (33 percent) and those who prioritize foreign policy (43 percent). While tieing with Buttigieg among “moderates” (25 percent), Biden narrowly lost to him among those who are most concerned with beating Trump — not a good sign since this is central to his appeal. 

Klobuchar’s 12.7 percent was not bad considering her national standing, but not good enough to warrant close analysis. Tulsi Gabbard, who has generated so much hand wringing among liberals and some leftists, attained only .2 percent. 

In the second round, Buttigieg gained over 4,000 votes, compared to about 2,000 each for both Sanders and Warren. Not much evidence for a Sanders-Warren alliance, although it is difficult to get data on those places where one or the other failed to reach 15 percent, thus making strategic second-round action viable. Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer together had nearly 12,000 first-round votes. If one assumes that all of Sanders and Warren’s gains were from them, there were still about 7,000 supporters of Yang or Steyer who passed on shifting to Warren or Sanders. Biden and Klobuchar both dropped off in the second round, suggesting centrist unity around Buttigieg. 

Going forward, it does indeed seem like the main options are Sanders or no clear winner before the end of the primaries. Buttigieg notoriously lacks anything like a base among African Americans, a much larger bloc in many important primaries on Super Tuesday. Biden may recover somewhat, but how far can he break out of the 65 and up category, given the presence of both Buttigieg and Bloomberg? Speaking of which, Bloomberg will likely be a factor by Super Tuesday, although it will be difficult for him to altogether unify the center by winning very large numbers of Biden’s current African-American supporters. 

Bernie’s task is clear: win big in enough states between now and Super Tuesday to create momentum to get to the convention with at least a clear plurality of the delegates, say 40 percent or more. This will silence talk of a brokered convention where he would be at a disadvantage and should be the task of everyone who urgently wants a strong progressive nominee fueled by small donations from the working class.

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