DES MOINES, IOWA - Hillary Clinton held a razor-thin lead early today over Bernie Sanders in a tight battle in Iowa’s leadoff presidential caucuses as the two rivals offered Americans a stark choice between political pragmatism and revolution.
With 99 percent of the vote reporting, Clinton had a narrow lead of 49.9 percent to 49.5 percent over Sanders. Clinton campaign officials told reporters they’re confident she won Iowa, but she stopped short of declaring victory in a post-caucus speech, and party officials said it’s unclear when the results would be declared final and official.
The problem: as of 3 a.m., one precinct in the state had yet to report. Party officials also told CNN that Clinton has been awarded more delegates than Sanders, and the Clinton campaign is now touting itself as the apparent winner.
“Hillary Clinton has won the Iowa caucuses,” the former first lady’s campaign said in a prepared statement early today.
The race was so close that some delegates were chosen by coin flips, the Des Moines Register reported.
Nine months after launching their campaigns, the two candidates faced Iowa voters in equally precarious positions.
Front-runner Clinton was determined to banish the possibility of dual losses in Iowa and in New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary, where she trails the Vermont senator. Two straight defeats could set off alarms within the party and throw into question her ability to defeat a Republican.
Sanders, for his part, was hoping to replicate President Barack Obama’s pathway to the presidency by using a victory in Iowa to catapult his passion and ideals of “democratic socialism” deep into the primaries. He raised $20 million during January and hoped to turn an Iowa win into a fundraising bonanza.
“We’ve got a tie ballgame — that’s where we are,” Sanders told volunteers and supporters in Des Moines.
The race was close between Clinton and Sanders, according to entrance poll interviews with early arrivals to caucus sites conducted by Edison Research for AP and television networks.
Even before the caucuses began, Sanders was working to discount the importance of a Clinton edge coming out of Iowa, telling reporters that if the former secretary of state “ends up with two delegates more of many, many hundred delegates, you tell me why that’s the end of the world.”
He served notice: “We’re taking this all of the way.”
A loss in Iowa would be a major setback for Sanders’ upstart challenge against Clinton, who has deep ties throughout the party’s establishment and a strong following among a more diverse electorate that plays a larger role in primary contests in February and March.
Caucus-goers were choosing between Clinton’s pledge to use her wealth of experience in government to bring about steady progress on democratic ideals and Sanders’ call for radical change in a system rigged against ordinary Americans.
“Hillary goes out and works with what we have to work with. She works across the aisle and gets things accomplished,” said 54-year-old John Grause, a precinct captain for Clinton in Nevada, Iowa.
“It’s going to be Bernie. Hillary is history. He hasn’t been bought,” countered 55-year-old Su Podraza-Nagle, 55, who was caucusing for Sanders in the same town.
In a campaign in which Clinton has closely aligned herself with Obama, more than half of Democratic caucus-goers said they were looking for a candidate who would continue the president’s policies, according to preliminary entrance polls of those beginning to arrive at caucus locations.
Sanders’ appeal with young voters was evident: More than 8 in 10 caucus-goers under 30 came to support him, as did nearly 6 in 10 of those between ages 30 and 44. Clinton got the support of 6 in 10 caucus-goers between ages 45 and 64, and 7 in 10 of those 65 and over.
Caucus-goers were about evenly split between health care and the economy as the top issues facing the nation. About a quarter said the top issue was income inequality, Sanders’ signature issue.
About 4 in 10 said they were first-time caucus attendees, about the same proportion who said so in 2008, when Obama’s support among newcomers was critical.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley ended his Democratic presidential campaign Monday midway through vote-counting in the Iowa caucuses, terminating a bid that failed to gain traction against Clinton and Sanders.
O’Malley’s decision to drop out of the race came even before a winner had been declared but as early results showed O’Malley garnering negligible support in the first primary contest. His plans were disclosed by two people familiar with his decision, who weren’t authorized to discuss the decision publicly and requested anonymity.
The former two-term governor and Baltimore mayor campaigned as a can-do chief executive who had pushed through key parts of the Democratic agenda in Maryland, including gun control, support for gay marriage and an increase in the minimum wage.
A veteran of Colorado Sen. Gary Hart’s presidential campaigns in the 1980s, O’Malley sought to portray himself as a fresh face for a party searching for new ideas. He launched some of the toughest critiques of the race, accusing Clinton of being on “three sides” of the gun control debate and offering “weak tea” when it came to policing Wall Street.
But the ex-governor struggled to raise money and was mired in single-digit polls for months, despite an active operation in Iowa and New Hampshire. His campaign was forced to accept federal matching funds in the fall and he failed to become Clinton’s chief alternative as Sanders tapped into the party’s liberal base.
Along the way, O’Malley’s campaign dealt with poor timing and some bad breaks. His campaign kickoff was complicated by riots in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, bringing fresh scrutiny of O’Malley’s law enforcement record as the city’s mayor.
Jason Yates, a precinct captain Monday night for O’Malley at a caucus site outside Des Moines, said he was disappointed but not surprised.
“Pretty uphill battle from the start for him here,” he said.