Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton and Vermont senator and self-pronounced socialist Bernie Sanders were in a practical tie with a small but potentially significant amount of caucus results still to be counted on Monday, leaving the Democratic party contestants in the awkward position of not being able to declare a result one way or the other.
Hillary Clinton came out first—somewhat hilariously pre-empting Ted Cruz's GOP victory speech on two of the three major cable news networks—to apparently declare her relief at finishing neck and neck with Sanders.
"So, I stand here tonight breathing a big sigh of relief—thank you, Iowa! .. I want you to know, I will keep doing what I have done my entire life. I will keep standing up for you. I will keep fighting for you. I will always work to achieve the America that I believe in," Clinton told a rally gathered in Des Moines. "Join me! Let's go win the nomination!"
The result avoided a spooky possible case of deja vu for the former secretary of state, who finished a disappointing third in the Iowa caucus in 2008 to Barack Obama and John Edwards before going on to lose the nomination to Obama. In the closing stages of this year's race, it looked again like Clinton might lose the first nominating contest of the calendar year to an upstart candidate who galvanized the youth vote, with the last poll before the caucus showing Sanders with a lead of 3 percent. Ultimately, though, with 95 percent of the caucus results reporting, Clinton led Sanders by the slimmest of margins: 49.8 percent to 49.6 percent. Martin O'Malley finished third with less than 1 percent of the vote and subsequently announced that he was suspending his campaign.
When Sanders came up to speak just before 11 p.m. local time, he seemed to embrace the tie narrative.
"Nine months ago we came to this beautiful state, we had no political organization. We had no money, we had no name recognition, and we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the United States of America," Sanders said. "And tonight while the results are still not known, it looks like we are in a virtual tie."
Sanders and Clinton go onto the New Hampshire primary next week, where the Vermont senator is expected to perform very well in a state that neighbors his own.
Update, Feb. 2, 2016, 1:15 a.m.: While the Clinton campaign was probably concerned this night might turn into a repeat of 2008, the better analogue is probably going to end up being 2012 on the Republican side. That year, Mitt Romney acknowledged that his virtual tie with Rick Santorum was a victory for the former Pennsylvania senator but also declared it a "great victory for us." The difference was that Santorum was only really a contender in Iowa, where he ended up finishing with the ever so slightly larger share of the popular vote on the basis of his support among Evangelicals, and nowhere else.
Romney went onto easily win New Hampshire, where Santorum finished fourth with less than 10 percent of the vote, and went onto easily consolidate the Republican nomination. This year, for Hillary's mainstream establishment candidacy, the road will likely be a bit more difficult in a one-on-one contest with Sanders, a challenger who is expected to prevail in New Hampshire. She leaves Iowa, though, holding onto legitimate relief at not having been seriously defeated and with a favorable map coming up after New Hampshire.