Despite the increasingly competitive races in Iowa and New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton's campaign officials are confident in their path to winning the Democratic nomination for one big reason.
Their competition is Bernie Sanders, not Barack Obama.
Clinton campaign officials tell NBC News that two key factors propelled Obama to victory over Sanders in 2008: 1) Obama's ability to galvanize the African-American vote after winning the Iowa caucuses; and 2) Obama's domination of the caucus contests.
But the Clinton campaign – while acknowledging the possibility they could lose Iowa – argues that Sanders will be unable to capitalize on either factor that benefited Obama.
When it comes to the African-American vote, the Clinton camp insists that it enjoys the early advantage. Indeed, in the national Jan. 2016 NBC/WSJ poll, Clinton's fav/unfav score among African Americans was 75 percent favorable, 11 percent unfavorable, versus Sanders' 48 percent-to-13 percent score.
And in a ballot test among non-white voters, the NBC/WSJ poll showed Clinton leading Sanders by 42 points among non-white Democratic primary voters, 69 percent to 27 percent. (Clinton's lead among white Democrats was smaller, 53 percent to 38 percent.)
That will help the Clinton campaign, it contends, when the Democratic contest moves from Iowa and New Hampshire to more diverse states like Nevada (Feb. 20); South Carolina (Feb. 27); and Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia (March 1).
The one danger for the Clinton campaign, however, is that Sanders somehow takes off with African-American voters after winning Iowa -- which Obama was able to do. As Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., told the Washington Post: “If [Sanders] comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire with big victories — if it’s close in both places, that’s one thing — but if he comes out of there with big victories, hey, man, it could very well be a new day.”
This is maybe the biggest unknown in the race: Will increased name identification for Sanders among non-white voters increase his vote share? This has happened with white voters in Iowa. As his name ID has gone up, his vote share has skyrocketed.
Then there's another way the Clinton folks believe they can prevent Sanders from being Obama ’08: not allow him to run up the score in the caucus states the same way Obama did in 2008 (by racking up bigger net delegate wins in say, Idaho, than Clinton was able to get by winning the Ohio primary).
Despite reporting suggesting that Sanders is building big organizations in the March 1 "Super Tuesday" states, the Clinton camp says it's making sizable investments in those states -- as well as the caucus contests. But they aren't publicizing the size of those investments for strategic reasons, Clinton officials tell NBC News.
Bottom line: The Clinton campaign says it doesn't have to win the caucus contests; it just has to stay close. And it feels it has the staff and resources to do that.
Yet there is an even bigger takeaway here: The Clinton campaign is acknowledging that it’s in the race for the long haul. Even under a best-case scenario for Clinton – winning the delegates proportionally by 60 percent to 40 percent – that means there won’t be a true winner until April or May.