There are two clear and contrasting thoughts about what Iowa mans to Democratic Presidential contender Bernie Sanders. One come from political observers who flatly say that Sanders must win the Iowa Caucuses to show Democrats, big donors, the media and the general public that he's really a viable, even electable candidate. The other view comes from Sanders' camp insiders who say that Iowa is not a political make or break proposition for him. He just needs to have a strong showing there and that will be enough to provide real momentum going into the subsequent primaries bout with Clinton. There's a history there that tells much about which view is most accurate. The history is what Iowa meant to Obama in 2008. He, like Sanders, was the insurgent, bucking up against what many assumed was the inevitability of a Hillary nomination. Iowa supposedly was just a way stop along the way for her.
Obama publicly anyway didn't buy that. He assured that the state was only one state and that a loss there wouldn't spell doom for his campaign. But even as he downplayed the state's importance he knew better. He dumped more money into his campaign there, opened more field offices there than Clinton and virtually camped out in the state. Sanders and Clinton have done the same. A second place showing in Iowa for Clinton would confirm for many that not only is she in a long haul horse race with Sanders but the horrific raise the horrific specter that Iowa could be a terrible repeat of 2008 for her candidacy.
A win in Iowa gives a candidate a rocket launch boost in public and party standing, much media attention, and potentially piles of campaign money. Iowa did much for underdog John Kerry and sunk frontrunner Howard Dean in 2004.
Kerry won Iowa and bagged the nomination, and Dean bungled it, he quickly became a laughingstock and a bare campaign 2004 footnote. An Iowa win won't do that for Sanders, but it will give a hint whether he can get a majority or at least a significant percent of Democrats, many of them moderate Democrats to vote for him. Iowa is one of the whitest and most rural states in the union. White voters make up more than ninety percent of the state's voters. That poses a possibility and a pitfall. Sanders has run a populist, grassroots campaign and stuck to themes of wealth and income inequality, radical overhaul of the health care, and battering Wall Street. They're appealing to many but the real question that lurks underneath is can he convince the voters that he can deliver on his promises.
He then must hope and pray that enough of them buy his message, and not succumb to the dread voting booth conversion on Election Day. That is the penchant for many voters to swear to pollsters and interviewers that they have no problem backing an avowed socialist and avowedly non-religious, socialist. But once in the quiet and very private confines of the voting booth, develop collective amnesia and vote for the traditional Democratic candidate. In this case, that's Hillary. Voting booth conversion has spelled doom for other candidates that were thought to be either shoo-in winners or strong showers in head to head contests against party approved opponents, and then go down to crashing defeat on Election Day.
Polls have shown that Sanders will either win Iowa or make a big showing there, and the odds are good that the polls are accurate. He is riding what appears to be a genuine crest of public goodwill, and mixed with his likeability, personal appeal, wildly enthusiastic backers, and anti-Washington bureaucracy revolt that should be enough to convince enough Iowa voters that he is a legitimate change agent and can bring the directional shift that millions of American voters say they desperately crave away from the domination in Washington of big money and special interests.
While Iowa is important for Sanders, it's also an aberration among the heartland states. It is moderately Democratic leaning, has a mild populist tradition, and voters are known to be independent on candidates and issues. These are the exact opposite traits of the other heartland states which are traditionalist, deeply conservative, and rock solid Republican. Even in some of these states that elect Democratic governors and Democratic state legislators, they are moderate to conservative Democrats, not populists with populist messages such as Sanders.
These states are a far better gauge of whether Sanders can really convince millions of voters, especially white male voters, who still make up nearly forty percent of the country's voters and have been the path to the White House for Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. that his message is compelling for them.
A win or a big showing in Iowa will give Sanders' dream campaign adrenalin shot and may convince more of the Democratic Party shot callers that he, not Hillary, is the party's go-to candidate. This won't dispel the doubts of the mass of Democratic voters that he's still a political question mark, or the deeper fear that he's too radical. Iowa is the major test for Sanders. But it won't be the only one.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is From Sanders to Trump: A Guide to the 2016 Presidential Primary Battles (Amazon Kindle) He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network