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Hillary Clinton barely beats Bernie Sanders in Iowa

Hillary Clinton has defeated Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucus by a razor-thin margin, the Associated Press is reporting. Clinton earned 49.8 percent of delegates, compared with 49.6 percent for rival Bernie Sanders.

Clinton may have technically won the race, but the extremely narrow margin between the two is going to be a cause for concern in the Clinton camp. The primary race moves next to New Hampshire, where Sanders enjoys a big lead thanks in part to its proximity to his home state of Vermont. A virtual tie in Iowa followed by a big Sanders victory in New Hampshire could create a real opening for Sanders, attracting donors and volunteers to help him compete in later races.

Still, Clinton can take some solace in Iowa's demographics. Sanders draws his support disproportionately from white voters, while black and Hispanic voters lean more toward Clinton. So the fact that Clinton won by a nose in lily-white Iowa is a good sign for her, because it suggests she's likely to do even better in states like South Carolina and Nevada where many Democratic voters are black or Hispanic.

Javier Zarracina / Vox

Polls bear this out. A January NBC poll shows Clinton ahead of Sanders by 64 percent to 27 percent among likely Democratic voters in South Carolina. In Nevada, a December poll showed Clinton ahead of Sanders 50 to 27. Sanders is going to have to do better if he wants to snatch the Democratic nomination away from Clinton.

Bernie Sanders ran a strong insurgent campaign

In early 2015, Hillary Clinton pursued essentially the same campaign strategy she had employed in 2007: lock up insider support so completely that no one would dare challenge her path to the nomination. Data from FiveThirtyEight's endorsement tracker shows that she has picked up endorsements from governors and Congress members far more quickly this election cycle than she did in the 2008 cycle. The result: Only one high-profile Democrat — Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley — chose to challenge Clinton. And he has totally failed to gain traction.

But at a time of widespread anger at Washington insiders, that left a pretty big opening for an insurgent candidacy. And Vermont's independent senator, Bernie Sanders, seized the opportunity.

Sanders is trying to achieve the same goal Barack Obama did eight years before, but his strategy is very different. Obama campaigned as a post-partisan uniter who could bring "change you can believe in." Much of Obama's appeal came from his personal biography as a biracial man who could — it was hoped — heal the nation's racial divide.

Sanders, by contrast, is a self-described socialist who is campaigning on a specific and fairly radical set of reforms to America's economy. Those reforms — including dramatically higher taxes on the wealthy, single-payer health care, and free college for many — are generally considered to be outside the mainstream of American politics. But Sanders is betting that after a decade of disappointing economic performance, voters can be persuaded to broaden their horizons.

But while his left-wing agenda has significant support among Democratic voters, there wasn't enough support to secure him a majority of delegates — even in a state rich in the white voters who have been most receptive to his message. Voters instead opted for Hillary Clinton's own mix of more moderate policies and hardheaded pragmatism.

An ordinary candidate — faced with a tie in a state whose demographics favor him — would look for ways to retool his message to win over a few more marginal voters in later states. But Bernie Sanders isn't a normal candidate. To him, the message is as important as the messenger — and he probably didn't expect to come this close to beating Clinton in the first place. So we can expect him to continue hammering away at the same themes in future states, hoping that the inherent appeal of his message will ultimately power him to victory.