The real contest in Iowa

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, January 31, 2015. REUTER/Jim Bourg

Paul Goldman

Money talks, and it may be about to speak loudly Monday night in Iowa.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is trying to do something no Democrat has done since 1896. The oldest person ever to seek the presidency is the party elite’s greatest threat since William Jennings Bryan, who, at 36, was the youngest person ever nominated for the White House. The Nebraskan’s Great Plains populism ignited a working-class economic revolt at the 1896 Democratic National Convention. His legendary “Cross of Gold” speech skewered a party establishment he claimed had sold out to Wall Street fat cats.

Bryan went from little-known longshot to the Democratic presidential nomination by the fifth ballot.

Bottom line: The Democratic fight Monday night in Iowa is between Main Street working-class-new-economy populism and Wall Street high-income classic liberalism. The key is whether older Democrats, particularly women in the six-figure income bracket who support former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, can out-vote their grandchildren’s support for Sanders. These women gained the most financially from changes in the 20th century. So, Sanders’ populism does not resonate with them as it does for younger voters.

Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally at Abraham Lincoln High School in Des Moines, Iowa, January 31, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Who wins? The best pollsters are hedging their bets. Here’s why.

In 2008, caucus entrance-poll results showed President Barack Obama winning women narrowly over Clinton, the early favorite. In 2016, the pre-election opinion polls predict she will defeat Sanders handily in this group.

In 2008, Obama beat Clinton 2-1 among caucus attendees reporting annual incomes of $100,000 or more. Today, opinion polls predict a total reversal, with Clinton winning the group 2-1. These voters are a significant group in the Democratic Party. Even in 2008, they comprised a higher percentage of the turnout than Obama’s legendary college-student voter.

In that year, Obama and Clinton were tied among those who had previously attended a caucus. In 2016, the former first lady has a solid lead in this group, fueled by older women in particular.

The bottom line: This is a formidable coalition. But it has a potential Achilles’ heel.

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Eight years ago, Obama and Clinton were tied among those reporting annual incomes of $50,000 or less. Today, Sanders has a sizeable lead in this group, which includes most college students. Because Sanders, like Obama, scores strongly among college students, this 2016 difference could mean that the Vermonter is winning many working-class Democrats who were attracted to Clinton last time.

This highlights Monday night’s drama. The income divide is stark and unprecedented in Iowa caucus history. Where Obama was greatly helped by high-income regular caucus voters, Sanders is being hurt by them.

Thus, the Vermonter needs a solid turnout among working-class and younger voters, especially first-time caucus-goers. Because Obama wasn’t losing working-class Democrats or regular caucus-goers, he easily defeated Clinton among first-time caucus participants, 41 percent to 29 percent. That they comprised 57 percent of the total turnout only padded Obama’s overall total. He would have won with only a normal first-time voter turnout.

Senator Barack Obama speaks during a rally at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, February 11, 2007. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Sanders cannot replicate Obama’s historic ability to inspire previous non-participants. But polls give Sanders anywhere from a 19 percent to 46 percent margin over Clinton with this group, which dwarfs Obama’s smaller 2008 lead. The populist, therefore, doesn’t need first-time voters to equal more than half the overall turnout.

Right now, however, pollsters are predicting first-time caucus-goers will only comprise about one in three of Monday night’s turnout. In 2004 and 2000, first-timers compromised 40 percent to 45 percent of the total turnout.

Sanders has been campaigning across Iowa to large, energized crowds not seen since Obama’s heyday in 2008. They are filled with potential first-time caucus-goers.

Most Iowa Democrats have never been to a caucus. The turnout for one of these Corn State confabs is always a small percentage of the overall registered vote. Thus, a campaign that can generate a significant first-time attendance has a strong chance of winning.

Based on the size of Sanders’ crowds and historical-turnout math, this begs the question: Why are the pollsters saying only one in three participants will be caucus rookies this year?

It is demographically understandable for the Clinton campaign to face challenges attracting new participants. Her best support comes from senior citizens. If they haven’t yet participated, the chances of starting now are slim.

On the other hand, Sanders’ best support is clearly among Democrats under 45, the best demographic for first-time caucus participants. Are the pollsters missing a wave?

Here’s one possible reason: What if Clinton is generating a hidden surge in support from previous Democratic caucus-goers, especially older women, including those in the higher-income bracket? This would make it mathematically difficult for Sanders to reach the 40 percent to 45 percent threshold of new participants.

Will Sanders’ working-class populist appeal be outmuscled by high-dollar women voters determined to break the highest glass ceiling?

Polls show most Democrats side with Sanders’ view that working families are at a disadvantage in the new economy. But whereas Obama stayed in the center-left- establishment liberal lane on economics, Sanders is promoting a populist, progressive antiestablishment economic path.

History says economic populism worries the financial establishment in both parties. Democratic leaders are telling the faithful: Be cool, help is on the way. But to this, Sanders retorts: That’s what you said in 2008.

Will feminism trump populism? Monday night, voters finally get their say.

It could prove to be the shortest revolution in modern politics. Or the start of one of the longest in presidential campaign history.