DES MOINES — Hillary Clinton was so focused on winning Iowa Monday night that she didn’t seem to notice that she hadn’t really won.
Onstage at Drake University, she declared she was “breathing a big sigh of relief.”
But it wasn’t clear why.
As she exited the podium, waving and shaking hands with supporters, her fate was still uncertain. But it was already obvious that it wasn’t a victory. Not in the literal sense, because as of press time she was still neck and neck with her rival Bernie Sanders, at 49.8 to 49.6 percent. This race was never supposed to be close at all. She was supposed to sail to a win this time. The socialist senator was supposed to be a blip. He’d won the expectations game.
“I am excited about really getting into the debate with Sen. Sanders about this best way forward to fight for America,” she said, unconvincingly.
While her supporters put on a brave face and enthusiastically talked up her progressive bona fides, Monday night was an unequivocal failure for Clinton. Now she will ride the wave of that failure into New Hampshire, a state where she trails Sanders by 18 points.
She didn’t fail to win Iowa for lack of trying. In the final weeks before the caucuses, she threw everything she could at Sanders—his varying positions on guns, his criticisms of President Obama (who won Iowa in 2008), and his desire to change Obama’s signature health-care bill.
She pleaded with Iowa to choose her experience—domestic and international—over his imagination. But his imagination prevailed, as Obama’s did 2008.
Meanwhile, a few miles away from Hillary’s fantasy victory party, Sanders was refusing to let her get away with controlling the narrative.
“Tonight, while the results are still not known, it looks like we are in a virtual tie,” he said. Hundreds of his supporters, packed into a ballroom at the airport Holiday Inn, cheered—for a full 42 seconds.
Sanders’s spokeswoman, Symone Sanders, said she didn’t understand why Hillary seemed to be calling the race for herself. “They’ve been up to tactics all weekend,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re up to now.”
Just outside the party, there was a bar filled with man buns, beards, and some tie-dye. “Nine months ago, nobody in Iowa knew who Bernie Sanders was!” Adam, who sipped a beer, energetically told The Daily Beast. He said he believed Sanders would “protect the Obama administration” and its accomplishments, and “continue that progression left.”
The excitement for Sanders was visible at a caucus site on the campus of Iowa State University, where one precinct ran out of new-voter registration forms and Sanders stickers about 30 minutes into the evening.
“We’re trying to print up as much as we can,” one caucus night volunteer, Lewis Rosser, said.
Students there weren’t just feeling the Bern—they seemed wholly consumed by it. Lines of them wound through the building, out its front door, down the steps, and almost to the street.
The students who directed some of the seven different precincts held at that building were energetic as hell—and, in some cases, just a bit overwhelmed.
Ally Colton, a student backing Clinton who sported an “H” T-shirt and coordinating ribbons in her ponytail, tried to do crowd control in one precinct room with minimal success.
“I know it sucks,” she said to the hundreds of students mashed into a poorly ventilated and sticky-smelling classroom. “There are a lot of us. We’re running behind. This has been a hot mess. We’re all on the same page. It’s going to take a little while.”
It took a long while. Thirty minutes later, students at that precinct were still filling out voter registration forms—long after the supposed deadline to register to participate in the caucuses. Two student caucus-goers, Liam Struck and Gray Degeest, stumbled out of the room laughing and clutching bottles of soda.
“I really have no idea,” Struck said when asked what was going on. “All I know is Martin O’Malley has like four people, Hillary has like 15, Bernie has like a hundred.”
A room downstairs was just as packed—and just as favorable to Bernie. But while students were passionate about the Vermont senator, they weren’t completely clued in to who he is. One young student who spoke to that room about why her peers should caucus for Sanders repeatedly referred to him as the senator from Virginia.
“I would be having a meltdown if I was in there,” said Savanna Falter, a Bernie fan who manned the door to the classroom and kept a head count of her fellow Bernie supporters.
“It’s so packed,” she said. “It’s so packed. I don’t know how people are doing this.”
Still, faced with all the buzz about the youthful momentum, Clinton supporters were upbeat and defiant—Bonnie Campbell, the former Iowa attorney general, pointed to the fact Clinton was the only Democrat bombarded with negative ads from Republicans for the last year.
“She had Karl Rove and all the right-wing groups spending millions of dollars here and she’s still standing,” Campbell said.
Renner Walker, a Clinton precinct captain in highly contested Polk County, put it this way: “A win’s a win.”
It was, in fact, a win for Hillary in Polk County, but this race is nowhere near over.