“Yes, Bernie can,” you could comment after the outcome of the Iowa Caucuses Iowa on Monday, echoing the simple and famous slogan of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008: Yes, we can.
In fact, to understand what happened, it would be more appropriate to replicate the slogan as it was formulated then. Before Bernie Sanders, more than eight years ago, we — the “us” — were the main reason and the motor of this extraordinary claim. It was even more significant because it was achieved in the face of the powerful, rich and extremely experienced Clinton machine. And the “us” is a great mobilization, especially among the youth, that is behind the success of a veteran politician who, against all odds, has consistently and insistently conducted a left-wing campaign. Sanders is part of an outspoken left that in many respects is no longer at home even in Europe and the social democratic tradition that he refers to as model.
Of course, the message of the fight against injustice and inequality and the complaint of a “souped-up economy” has leveraged and aroused enthusiasm because it has also found in Sanders an experienced and persuasive messenger. On Monday night, the crowd of cheering supporters greeted him with a chorus of, “Feel the Bern!”
With Sanders returns politics, and the stories circulated by those obstructing the political process or, worse, the confusion fed by commentators in ignorance or in bad faith, have gone up in flames. In Europe, there is a similar logic of the demagogic populism of creepy characters like Donald Trump, who invests billions and stokes the fears and frustrations of the white middle class.
The outcome of the vote in Iowa is a political revolution, as Sanders said of Monday’s virtual tie in the fight with Hillary Clinton, which became a duel after the exit of the third Democratic candidate, Martin O’Malley. The socialist and/or Social Democrat senator, as he calls himself, came close to victory. He may be able to achieve this on Tuesday in New Hampshire, the second stage of the presidential primaries, where Sanders has some advantage with New Hampshire’s proximity to his home state of Vermont. Most commenters give him a lead ahead of Hillary in the polls.
In terms of the number of delegates, Sanders commands 21 votes from Iowa to Hillary Clinton’s 23. In New Hampshire, 24 delegates are up for grabs. Of the 4,764 delegates who comprise the National Democratic Convention, which will be held at the end of July, Sanders’ task seems Herculean. Almost a fifth of the delegates, 713, are by law members of Congress, governors, senior leaders of the party and retired leaders like former presidents and vice-presidents. Of these, 347 have already sided Hillary, and only 13 with Bernie. Three hundred fifty are undecided, and some may even change their minds, but it is already widely evident that the Democratic apparatus strongly supports Clinton.
Yet, as in 2008, the very fulsome firepower that Clinton exhibits — in combination with the large sums of campaign money and local organized networks — may fuel the widespread sentiment against her. Her image has become one of an inevitable candidate imposed from above, promoted and supported by vested interests, and thus imposed on the electoral base of the primaries.
Sanders has become the champion of grassroots participation that embodies a possible alternative. This is why the figure of new, mostly young voters who voted for him in Iowa, is so interesting. This will continue to ruffle Clinton’s plans, especially if Sanders’ positive result in Iowa is repeated with his expected success in New Hampshire. At that point Sanders’ presidential aspiration would have to be taken seriously and no longer be treated with condescension by the establishment and the media as the ephemeral bet by an old politician supported by young idealists. On the other hand, the media circus is incredibly interested in a democratic competition that is a real race and lasts as long as possible.
Sanders’ fate weighs on his absent hold over important electoral blocs for the Democratic Party, such as African Americans and Latinos. In addition, when the race intensifies and arrives in those states that really matter in terms of delegate numbers, the gap of financial and organizational means against Hillary will be strongly felt.
Of course, what happens in the Republican camp will impact the orientation of Democratic voters in the next stages of the primaries. Whoever emerges as the Republican candidate will determine to some degree the dynamic in the Democratic race, and vice versa. In the Republican camp before the start of the primaries, it was assumed that Hillary would be the Democratic nominee and, based on that, the candidate who seemed most able to beat her won the most support. This is also why Donald Trump grew in the polls, as a perfect anti-Hillary. His exhibited misogyny is an evident confirmation.
On the Republican side, the Iowa vote does not explain the real state of things. By now we are so used to evaluating the outcomes of the competition based on predictions that we are now considering Ted Cruz the front-runner and Trump is falling behind. It could be so, but there is also Marco Rubio. All three, in the Iowa vote, exceeded 20 percent and are separated by a few points. A three-way race looms, with none of the candidates fitting into the apparatus of the Grand Old Party. The only one who might fall into line and be supported is Rubio, but paradoxically he lacks the support of the Bush clan. Jeb Bush is out the running at this point, and could shift his support, voters and especially his considerable campaign funds toward Rubio, with the GOP’s backing. But since the Bush camp is convinced that Rubio’s candidacy is the source of Jeb’s defeat, it will be very difficult to divert to the young senator from Florida the more than $50 million left in cash for Bush’s campaign, which has ended in misery.
The beginning of this primary — a marathon with 25 more rounds of voting in 49 states that will end in mid-June — confirms that though party organizations, intertwined in America by the power of the clans and dynasties, are still powerful, they’ve ceded ground to grassroots movements, to the point of being supplanted. Those who, until not long ago, would have been the most obvious challengers — Clinton and Bush — are already offstage. Maybe Hillary will manage to hold on, and eventually become president. But if so, it won’t be for her strength based on power, but because in the end she will be perceived — in a confrontation with Cruz or Trump — as a symbol of the last dam to barbarism.