Clinton, Sanders both winners in Iowa

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton was narrowly leading Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucus on Monday
  • Sally Kohn: Clinton, Sanders campaigns both still look energized heading into New Hampshire

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Did Hillary Clinton win the Iowa caucuses? Did Bernie Sanders? Actually it might not really matter. Clinton staved off the fate she feared most -- repeating the caucus outcome of 2008 when Barack Obama unexpectedly and comfortably defeated her, presaging his eventual defeat of her entire candidacy. But whether or not he has eked out a technical win, the Iowa results are a victory for Sanders.

The unkempt progressive once thought to only be competitive in the Northeast is now in a neck-and-neck race with the Democratic establishment candidate in the heartland of America. That isn't just a victory for Sanders. That's a victory for anyone who believes in democracy.
"We are in a virtual tie," Sanders said with enthusiasm at his speech to his supporters in Iowa Monday evening.
    Sally Kohn
    Clinton said in her speech she was breathing "a big sigh of relief," a joking allusion both to the 2008 outcome, as well as polls that had predicted she might fare worse this time around.
    Of course, Iowa is just Iowa, and is neither particularly large nor very representative of the rest of the country. The Democratic Party doesn't release the total number of caucusgoers, but on the Republican side, in his victory speech, Ted Cruz noted that 48,608 votes were cast in his favor. That's not a lot of people. And there aren't that many delegates at stake in Iowa. But what Iowa does mean is momentum. And coming out of the state, both Sanders and Clinton have it.
    Where will that momentum take them? To South Carolina.
    Hillary Clinton has always been favored to win the Democratic nomination this year, so this race has been hers to lose and Sanders' to win. It's news that Sanders did so well in Iowa because he wasn't expected to perform well there, in contrast to his strong command of New Hampshire. But both Iowa and New Hampshire are relatively small and demographically non-representative states, disproportionately whiter than the nation as a whole.
    South Carolina matters not just because it's a less predictable race -- and polls suggest getting closer -- but because it is a fundamentally more important representative state. While Clinton and Sanders are fairly evenly divided among white voters (Clinton wins the older ones, Sanders the younger ones), black voters have tended to back Clinton. But they have recently started to shift toward Sanders, and in the context of an election shaped by the activism of Black Lives Matter, the numeric and symbolic importance of the black vote is key. This suggests that South Carolina provides the more enlightening test for both Sanders and Clinton.
    So as we get ready for New Hampshire next week, and then to South Carolina, it will be interesting to watch whether Clinton or Sanders recalibrate their campaigns and their personas in the wake of Iowa. Will Clinton continue to go negative against Sanders or step back from that strategy? Will Sanders become increasingly polished to reflect his campaign's increasing viability? Will Clinton continue to try to out-Bernie Bernie on progressive economic positions? Will Clinton's experience combined with world events make Sanders hone his message on foreign policy?
    This is a long election (although not for Martin O'Malley, who said he will suspend his campaign). Iowa is over. The election isn't. And on the Democratic side, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have plenty of reasons to be encouraged going forward. Perhaps the biggest encouragement is coming from the Republican side, which seems increasingly inclined to nominate the likes of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, deeply troubling personalities who most polls show both Clinton and Sanders could handily beat.