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What we can learn from Bernie Sanders’s Iowa voters

Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters in Concord, New Hampshire, on Tuesday after an early morning flight. Can he turn a strong showing in Iowa into a national candidacy?
Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters in Concord, New Hampshire, on Tuesday after an early morning flight. Can he turn a strong showing in Iowa into a national candidacy?
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders's strong showing in Iowa — where he lost to Hillary Clinton by a hair — gives his supporters a lot to be excited about, including the overwhelming support of young voters and evidence that he is a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination.

But experts say little in Sanders's performance Monday night suggested that he could beat Clinton to the ultimate nomination or that he is re-creating Barack Obama's 2008 general electoral coalition, said Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College.

"I'm sure the Sanders people are putting on a bright face — and, from one perspective, they should," Dickinson said. "But deep down, if you're expecting Sanders to replicate the Obama revolution, you have to be disappointed with Iowa."

Sanders's campaign has banked on capturing enthusiasm for its candidate in the heavily white, heavily liberal states that vote first. Once those primaries punctured Clinton's sense of inevitability, the idea went, Sanders would be able to expand his support to nonwhite and less liberal voters.

But the first part of this strategy didn't really materialize in Iowa, in part because he didn't win outright and in part because voters didn't really show up for Sanders in the same numbers as they did for Obama in 2008, according to Dickinson.

(In 2008, 239,000 Iowans participated in the Democratic caucuses compared with about 170,000 last night.)

"Nothing I've said precludes the possibility that Sanders will initiate an Obama-type revolution, but I just didn't see it last night," Dickinson said. "If you thought he was inciting this revolution, you'd like to see higher turnout."

Could Sanders be building something more durable than Obama did in 2008?

Sanders may not be re-creating Obama's electoral coalition. But he could be opening up a fundamentally different kind of fault line in the Democratic Party — one that cleaves the party along ideological lines.

"What's distinctive about this campaign, much more than Obama's, is that Sanders is staking a position further left of any other candidate and using language that's further left," said Jedediah Purdy, a Duke University law professor who has written several books on American political identity.

Sanders's embrace of a distinctive ideological message, Purdy said, suggests he can build a political movement that doesn't have to mirror Obama's to have real power.

"The long-term question — the key one for the Sanders campaign — is whether people who are supporting him have some picture, policy-wise, about his language and about socialism and a fair economy," Purdy says. "Do they actually represent some potential for a lasting voting bloc? Or are people thinking something about the moment but not consolidating it into their priorities?"

There's evidence that it's the substance of Sanders's message that's resonating with voters. And if that's the case, Purdy said, Sanders's insurgent campaign may in a way prove to have even more of an impact than Obama's in the long run.

"If that's the case, this campaign has built a lasting constituency whether or not they win this year," Purdy said. "Obama didn't do that, because ultimately that campaign was about his extraordinary charisma and the kind of thinking that it would be possible to become post-partisan."

Purdy added that Obama's 2008 campaign "was a movement, but ultimately it was a personality movement. It didn't turn out to have the substance of realignment behind it."

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