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Bernie Sanders's tie should be the biggest story of the Iowa caucuses

1) Donald Trump has been the best candidate in the Republican race. But Ted Cruz has run, by far, the best campaign.

2) Marco Rubio's unexpectedly strong third-place finish is being treated as a huge win for him. Why? Because the Iowa caucuses are a social construct.

3) Less cheekily, it's because Rubio wasn't really running against Trump or Cruz tonight. He was running against Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich in order to clear the establishment lane in the Republican primary. And Rubio definitely beat Christie, Bush, and Kasich. It's becoming easier to see how he consolidates GOP support and ends up in a three-man race with Cruz and Trump.

4) Fun fact: more than half of all Republican caucus-goers in Iowa went for Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. As a thought experiment, imagine Trump drops out tomorrow. Are his supporters Rubio or Cruz backers? My guess is Cruz backers.

5) As impressive as a third-place finish in Iowa is for Marco Rubio, a tie for Bernie Sanders is a genuinely remarkable political achievement.

6) Imagine telling Bill Clinton in 1992 that 25 years later his wife would be neck and neck with an "independent socialist" in the Democratic primary. This wasn't supposed to be possible.

7) In 2008, Barack Obama beat Clinton in Iowa. His campaign was powered by liberal anger over the war in Iraq — anger Clinton was on the wrong side of — as well as real institutional support from the Democratic Party. Sanders had much less to work with in terms of issue differences or Democratic Party fissures, and was facing Clinton in a year she was much stronger.

8) If the caucus results ended in a tie between Sanders and Clinton, then the speeches turned the night into a win for Sanders — he made a detailed, thorough case for his candidacy in a way Clinton simply didn't. His speech felt like Obama's primary-night speeches in 2008. Clinton's felt like, well, Clinton's primary-night speeches in 2008.

9) The consolation for the Clinton campaign is that the underlying math still looks good. Sanders is running behind Obama among white voters. Given that he's likely to run way behind Obama with nonwhite voters, Clinton remains a heavy favorite to ultimately win the nomination. But given that Sanders is likely to win New Hampshire next week, that victory won't come without a long and grinding fight.

10) Still, it's hard to see this week as anything but a reminder that the Clinton campaign is not the sure thing Democrats once hoped. She is leaving Iowa tied with Sanders, dogged by her emails, and struggling to excite Democrats about her candidacy. This is not the juggernaut of a campaign that led virtually every viable Democratic candidate for president to sit 2016 out.

11) Democratic elites have put themselves in a position where Sanders is their only viable alternative to Clinton — and they don't see him as all that viable.

12) Which is to say, Democratic elites have gambled the 2016 presidential election on Clinton's candidacy, and it's not obvious their hand was as strong as they thought. And if they lose, they really lose. Republicans can fall short of the White House and still hold Congress, the Supreme Court, and most governor's mansions. If Democrats lose the White House, they're locked out of government at basically every level.