Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a town hall at the Toledo Civic Center in Toledo, Iowa, Jan. 18, 2016.
Photo by Patrick Semansky/AP

First Read: For Hillary Clinton, it all comes down to Iowa

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.

Take It Easy? Or Take It To The Limit? For Hillary, It All Comes Down To Iowa

The New York Times writes that Hillary Clinton and her campaign are “preparing for a primary fight that could stretch into late April or early May and require a sprawling field operation in states and territories from Pennsylvania to Guam.” That’s one to way look at it. Here’s another way: If she wins Iowa, Clinton will be set up to separate herself from Bernie Sanders in South Carolina and the March 1 primaries – after which her campaign can start to focus on the general election. But if she loses Iowa, then, yes, a highly competitive Democratic race will extend into April and May. And that’s not all – panicky Democrats will become even more nervous, Joe Biden’s phone will ring, Michael Bloomberg’s phone will ring, too. Make no mistake, Bernie Sanders isn’t going away. But if you assume, one way or another, that Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, Iowa will determine whether she gets it the easy way or the hard way. So on the Democratic side, no contest will be more impactful than the Iowa caucuses, which are now less than two weeks away.

New Kid in Town

Speaking of Iowa, Donald Trump holds two rallies in the state today. And there’s buzz – though not confirmed yet by NBC News – that he could pick up Sarah Palin’s endorsement in the Hawkeye State today. Such an endorsement wouldn’t be surprising, given that Palin was your Donald Trump from 2008-2010 – a politico who fires up the GOP grassroots, but who also has considerable flaws.

It’s Another Tequila Sunrise (for the GOP)

Just how much has the GOP’s presidential nominating contest hurt the Republican Party? Look at these numbers from our NBC/WSJ poll: 42% of all voters say the race has made them feel LESS favorable about the Republican Party, versus 19% who are MORE favorable. Then look at these subgroups.

  • African Americans: 57% less favorable, 5% more favorable (-52)

  • Latinos: 45% less favorable, 13% more favorable (-32)

  • Suburban voters: 43% less favorable, 19% more favorable (-23)

  • Independents: 32% less favorable, 12% more favorable (-21)

  • Whites: 40% less favorable, 22% more favorable (-18)

Even nearly a quarter of Republican primary voters (23%) have a less favorable view of the party due to the nominating process, versus 33% who have a more favorable view (+10). Now compare these numbers with the percentages for the Democrats. Overall, 28% say they have a less favorable view of the Democratic Party, versus 17% with a more positive view. And among these same subgroups:

  • African Americans: 29% more favorable, 5% less favorable (+24)

  • Latinos: 29% more favorable, 17% less favorable (+12)

  • Independents: 14% more favorable, 18% less favorable (-4)

  • Suburban voters: 28% less favorable, 17% more favorable (-11)

  • Whites: 33% less favorable, 14% more favorable (-19)

So the only major subgroup here where the GOP scores higher than the Democrats is among whites – and that’s just barely. And among Democratic primary voters, the numbers are 38% more favorable, 7% less favorable (+31). Bottom line: The GOP has taken a hit here. And the primary season is only just beginning…

Obama: Peaceful Easy Feeling? Or After The Thrill Is Gone?

Also in our new NBC/WSJ poll, President Obama’s overall job rating stands at 47% among all registered voters – up four points since December (which was conducted after the San Bernardino shootings). But if you want to know why Hillary Clinton is hugging Obama, here’s the percentage of Democratic primary voters who approve of the president’s job: 87%. By contrast, George W. Bush’s approval rating among all Republicans was 70% in the Dec. 2007 NBC/WSJ poll.

The Heat Is On

And while we already released Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ head-to-head matchups in the NBC/WSJ poll against Donald Trump (Clinton was ahead of Trump by 10 points, Sanders by 15), here are two more matchups in the national survey:

  • Clinton 47%, Rubio 46%

  • Clinton 49%, Cruz 45%

Life In The Fast Lane

In other poll results, here are the numbers from our weekly online NBC|SurveyMonkey tracking poll:

  • In the GOP race, it’s Trump at 38% among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, Ted Cruz at 21%, Marco Rubio at 11%, and Ben Carson at 8% - all essentially unchanged from last week. No other Republican gets more than 4%.

  • In the Democratic contest, Clinton leads Bernie Sanders nationally, 52%-36% – again unchanged from a week ago. Martin O’Malley sits at 1%.

Heartache Tonight

National Journal’s Fournier: “Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder conceded Monday that his administration’s handling of the Flint water crisis is a stain on his legacy, reflects poorly on his leadership, and is aptly compared to President Bush’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. ‘It’s a disaster,” he said when asked about the comparison some critics have made to the 2005 natural disaster in New Orleans that became a symbol of government mismanagement—city, state, and federal. “It’s clearly a negative on what we’ve accomplished since I’ve been governor.’”

On the trail

Donald Trump holds rallies in Winterset, IA at 11:30 am ET and Ames, IA at 6:00 pm ET… Trump, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, and Mike Huckabee also address a Renewable Fuels Summit (ie, ethanol) in Altoona, IA… Ted Cruz remains in New Hampshire… Jeb Bush is in New York City, where he delivers a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations… John Kasich stumps in the Granite State… And Bernie Sanders spends his day in Iowa.

Countdown to Iowa: 13 days

Countdown to New Hampshire: 21 days 

Hillary Clinton and Iowa

First Read: For Hillary Clinton, it all comes down to Iowa