DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Locked in what’s become a neck-and-neck primary battle, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders made frantic, last-minute appeals to Iowa voters in the final hours before Monday night’s caucuses.
Nine months after launching their campaigns, Clinton and Sanders face Iowa voters in equally precarious positions. Long the front-runner, Clinton now faces 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 question her ability to defeat Republicans.
“We’ve got a tie ballgame – that’s where we are,” Sanders told volunteers and supporters in Des Moines Monday, imploring them to turn out and caucus. “We will struggle tonight if the voter turnout is low. That’s a fact.”
Sanders hoped 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 primary. He reported on Sunday raising $20 million — mostly online — during January and could experience a fundraising bonanza if he prevails in Iowa.
A loss here would be a major setback for his upstart challenge against the ex-secretary of state, New York senator and first lady, 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.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who’s failed to break single digits in most polls, trailed Clinton and Sanders by wide margins and was only expected to affect the outcome in a tight race.
Clinton hoped to overcome her surprising 2008 defeat to Obama in Iowa, which transformed the then-first term Illinois senator from a longshot into serious contender.
“I’m so excited for tonight. I’m feeling so energized!” Clinton told supporters Monday, stopping by a campaign office in Des Moines with her daughter, Chelsea, and iced coffee and doughnuts for volunteers.
Clinton told NBC Monday that her staff knocked on 125,000 doors over the weekend to promote her message and woo the undecided.
“Although it’s a tight race, a lot of the people who are committed to caucusing for me will be there and standing up for me and I will do the same for them in the campaign and in the presidency,” Clinton told NBC’s Today Monday morning.
Sanders, helped by 15,000 volunteers in Iowa, needs a strong showing among college students and eligible high school seniors, first-time caucus-goers and working-class supporters who don’t traditionally participate in the caucuses. The local meetings are held across the state on a winter evening every four years, placing a premium on organization.
Speaking to reporters briefly in the doorway of his campaign bus Monday, Sanders said that if Clinton “ends up with two delegates more of many, many hundred delegates, you tell me why that’s the end of the world?”
“This is a national campaign. We are in this to win at the convention. We’re taking this all of the way,” he said.
The so-called “democratic socialist” cast the race as a fight between establishment forces backing Clinton and his movement to provide a Medicare for all “universal health care,” debt-free college and a break-up of large Wall Street banks.
“You don’t make progress unless you have the courage to look reality in the eye,” Sanders said at a rally in Waterloo. “If you sweep the problems under the rug they ain’t going to get better.”
Traveling through Iowa by bus, Sanders campaigned extensively in the eastern part of the state, on college campuses and liberal enclaves in cities, trying to light a similar fire that Obama sparked here in 2008. Clinton had strength in cities, rural towns across the state and western Iowa, where she won many counties eight years ago.
Clinton flew around the state in a private plane, touching down for rallies in some of Iowa’s largest media markets.
The biggest question on caucus day? Voter turnout. Democrats shattered records in 2008, the last contested caucuses, with nearly 240,000 participants, far surpassing the 125,000 in 2004. Few expect turnout approaching 2008 levels but Sanders said a higher turnout would help him upset Clinton.