NASHUA, N.H. – Q: When is a win not a win?
A: When the winner is Hillary Clinton.
The Iowa Democratic Party confirmed in its final tally Tuesday that Clinton had won Monday night’s caucuses. She not only beat Bernie Sanders but got more votes than any Republican candidate, and she becomes the first woman ever to win the Iowa caucuses. Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
Yet from the coverage of Monday’s caucuses, you’d think Clinton was on the ropes.
The New York Times: “Hillary Clinton Campaign, Unnerved by Iowa, Braces for New Hampshire”
The Washington Post: “Photo finish reveals shortcomings of candidate who once seemed invincible”
Politico: “How Iowa went wrong for Hillary Clinton”
CNN: “Did Hillary Clinton really win the Iowa caucuses?”
The Post reported that she would spend the day “trying to reassure supporters, donors and the mainstream media that last night does not mean a reprise of 2008,” and the Times raised the possibility that “a significant staff shakeup was at hand.”
One shudders to imagine the coverage if she had lost Iowa.
Journalists were faulting Clinton for flunking the expectations game by barely defeating a 74-year-old socialist who once trailed distantly. But that dismissed the salient fact that she won – and that her performance fit with forecasts.
Yes, the RealClearPolitics polling average showed her up four points in Iowa, but a few days earlier that same average showed Sanders with a slight lead. As for the margin of victory, Rick Santorum defeated Mitt Romney by all of 34 votes in 2012 – yet his win was reported as a conquest.
Why the disparate treatment? Some see sexism, which is difficult to prove. But there does seem to be a long-running game in which Clinton can never quite meet the expectations set for her, even if her actual achievements are considerable. She raised a ton of money – but Sanders raised almost as much! She won the Iowa caucuses – but she didn’t win by enough!
Yes, the narrow win in Iowa could make for a more protracted nomination battle. So would an expected loss in New Hampshire, which the media will likely attribute to Clinton’s weakness rather than Sanders being a New Englander (like previous New Hampshire victors Romney, John Kerry, Paul Tsongas, Michael Dukakis and Edmund Muskie). But it may have been a hard slog no matter who was in the race with Clinton: She’s a candidate of steadiness at a time when the electorate wants iconoclasts.
Voters, particularly young ones, are easily wooed by talk of free college and free health care. They can be intemperate (as demonstrated by the supporters at the Sanders rally in Des Moines on Monday night who booed Clinton when she appeared on television and chanted “She’s a liar!”) and can fall for unrealistic promises. But Clinton, to her credit, is not pretending to be something other than herself this time. “I come to you with a lifetime of service and advocacy and of getting results” was her less-than-soaring pitch here Tuesday.
Clinton staffers have come to expect that they'll have to fight every hour – literally. After Clinton’s speech Monday night, in which she stopped short of claiming victory, aides briefed reporters at about 1:30 a.m. aboard the campaign plane on the Des Moines airport tarmac, trying mightily to spin a victory in the absence of final results.
“The only candidate who can emerge from tonight’s caucuses with a win is Hillary Clinton,” Brian Fallon said.
“We believe,” said Jennifer Palmieri, “that we won. Our modeling shows that.”
When the plane landed in New Hampshire at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, Fallon announced that the Iowa Democratic Party and NBC had projected Clinton the winner. “We’re still waiting for CNN and ABC and AP,” he told reporters. “As soon as they project it, we'll open the door to the plane.”
A few hours later, at Nashua Community College, the candidate herself felt it safe to declare victory. “I am so thrilled that I’m coming to New Hampshire after winning Iowa,” she told about 800 supporters. “I’ve won and I’ve lost there. It’s a lot better to win.”
The speech, at 40 minutes, was too long and discursive, but it included the most important point. “Don’t ever forget,” she told the cheering crowd. “Close elections matter. You either win or you lose.”
That’s how it works, and Hillary Clinton won the Iowa caucuses. Let’s cut her some slack.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.