After months of buildup, the 2016 presidential nomination contest kicked off yesterday with what for Democrats turned out to be the closest Iowa caucus in history. An early morning statement by the Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman gave Hillary Clinton the victory over Bernie Sanders by a razor-thin margin. Since Iowa caucus outcomes are measured in what’s known as “state delegate equivalents,” rather than raw vote totals, it’s not possible to tell how many voters separated the two candidates. But we do know this: Under the caucuses’ arcane rules, Clinton won at least six deadlocked precincts by a coin flip.
For gun reform advocates and Democratic strategists, the Iowa caucuses had an important subplot, providing the first real test of Clinton’s effort to use Sanders’s record on guns to raise doubts about his liberal principles. Since the party’s initial debate last fall, Clinton has hammered the Vermont senator on the issue, hitting him particularly hard on his vote in favor of legislation providing broad legal protections for gun businesses, a bill heavily promoted by the National Rifle Association. The Clinton campaign believed that a focus on guns could demonstrate to Sanders’s base of white liberal supporters that he “is not a purist, as he maintains,” in the words of Emily Tisch Sussman, a political strategist at the Center for American Progress.
In Iowa, which sets the narrative for the first leg of presidential primary contests, the Clinton camp hoped the gun issue would help her score a decisive win, leaving next week’s vote in New Hampshire, where Sanders holds a sizable lead in the polls, as a minor speed bump on Clinton’s march to the nomination. On Saturday, former congresswoman and gun violence prevention advocate Gabby Giffords, who rarely speaks in public, joined Clinton on the stump in a key Iowa county, an appearance meant to press Clinton’s perceived advantage on the issue. Meanwhile, the Sanders campaign, on the defensive, was sending out mailers in which he vowed to take on the NRA. And after spending months defending his vote for the gun-industry immunity law, Sanders agreed to cosponsor a bill that would repeal it.
But for all that drama, Clinton, as we know now, did not get the convincing Iowa triumph that her team was hoping for. The narrow outcome, in turn, makes the role that the gun issue played difficult to parse. Here are the big open questions.
Did Clinton’s gun gambit help her stave off defeat in Iowa?
There are reasons to see things that way.
Quinnipiac University’s caucus day poll showed that only 3 percent of Democratic Iowa caucus goers ranked guns as their most important issue. That’s not nearly as high as the percentages listing the economy, health care, or even climate change as their top priority — but it’s also well more than the margin separating Clinton and Sanders in the final result.
Perhaps more significantly, other survey data shows that the gun issue may have helped prevent more Clinton voters from defecting to Sanders as the race tightened. The highly regarded (though obviously not perfectly accurate) Des Moines Register-Bloomberg Politics poll, which released its final pre-caucus poll on Saturday, found that 10 percent of Clinton supporters had backed Sanders at some earlier point in the race before coming home to Clinton during the race’s closing stretch. Separately, surveys of caucus-goers entering their precincts found that among those making up their mind on election day, 45 percent broke for Clinton, versus 42 percent for Sanders. Some of those voters no doubt made their decisions based on the bigger question of electability. But by using Sanders’s gun record to paint him as just an ordinary politician, Clinton provided another reason — perhaps a crucial reason — not to feel the Bern.
Was there enough daylight between Clinton and Sanders on guns to really provide Clinton with an opening?
Gun-safety advocates will never absolve Sanders for his perceived sins of backing the gun-industry legal shield law and his subsequent attempts to explain his position as one intended to protect mom and pop gun shops in Vermont. But Sanders has voted for policies like assault weapons bans, and while Clinton can call herself proud to have the NRA as an enemy and point to her F rating from the gun lobby, Sanders’s own NRA grade is a D-minus. Clinton’s attacks on Sanders’s record also may be blunted by her own evolution on the issue. You may recall that in 2008, Barack Obama could credibly zing Clinton as sounding like “Annie Oakley” as she wooed firearms-owning Democrats following Obama’s musings on the gun-clinging of rural voters
What does Clinton do now?
And here we arrive at the biggest question of all where the 2016 Democratic primary and gun policy is concerned. Before Clinton’s event with Giffords, she had used the issue more aggressively in New Hampshire than she was in Iowa, devoting fully a quarter of her TV ads in the Granite State to drawing a contrast between her and Sanders on gun reform. But to judge from public polling, that push has not moved the needle. As of very early this morning, FiveThirtyEight is projecting that Sanders will win 54.1 percent of the New Hampshire vote compared to Clinton’s 42.7 percent.
Guns may provide Clinton a bigger lift in the South Carolina primary on February 27, where polls have shown her leading by a wide margin in the first contest in which African American voters will be a significant factor. South Carolina is also where Clinton took up the mantle of gun reform in the wake of the Charleston church massacre last summer. If gun policy does not provide the Clinton campaign with a viable wedge issue to use against Sanders, it may yet have another benefit: As one political observer has noted, Clinton “sees the chance to be the candidate of change on this one issue.” And when you’re a very familiar establishment candidate running against an insurgent promising a revolution, any opportunity to claim the role of change agent is valuable.
It’s also possible, of course, that the Clinton campaign will lay off the gun message as she seeks another way to staunch Sanders’s momentum. But what seems certain is that we have not heard the last gun policy-centric ad or talking point of the 2016 cycle. The distinctions between Clinton’s and Sanders’s gun records may not tip the Democratic contest, but the differences between the parties on the issue is vast. No matter who the Democrats and Republicans nominate, on guns there will be much to debate when the race turns to the general election.
[Photo: AP/Mic Smith]