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.
Get ready for a longer-than-expected Democratic race
On Friday afternoon, the Clinton campaign made two arguments to First Read why Bernie Sanders isn't Barack Obama 2.0 -- 1) he doesn't have the same ability to galvanize African-American voters, and 2) they're not going to let him dominate the caucus contests. But there's a bigger takeaway here: The Clinton campaign is acknowledging that it's preparing for a long race where it will have to grind out a win against Sanders. Even under a best-case scenario for Clinton (winning the delegates proportionally by, say, a 60%-40% margin), that means we won't see a true Dem winner until April or May. So regardless if you believe Sanders is ahead in Iowa by eight points (as last week's CNN poll showed), if you believe that Clinton is up by 29 (as the Loras College poll showed), or if it's somewhere in the middle, Clinton-vs.-Sanders is a storyline we'll likely see for the next three to four months. But do remember under that proportional system, if one side takes the clear lead -- and the Clinton camp is eyeing the March 1 contests (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) -- it's hard to lose it.
Obama doesn't see Clinton vs. Sanders as a repeat of 2008
Politico's Glenn Thrush interviewed President Obama and asked him if the Clinton vs. Sanders race resembles his 2008 contest with Clinton. Sanders resembled his 2008 campaign. His answer: "I don't think that's true. I think that what is — you know, if you look at both of them, I think they're both passionate about giving everybody a shot. I think they're both passionate about kids having a great education. I think they want to make sure everybody has health care. I think that they both believe in a tax system that is fair and not tilted towards, you know, the folks at the very top. But, you know, they — I think Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete longshot and just letting loose. I think Hillary came in with the — both privilege and burden of being perceived as the frontrunner." Thrush's takeaway from the interview: Obama "couldn't hide his obvious affection for Clinton or his implicit feeling that she, not Sanders, best understands the unpalatably pragmatic demands of a presidency he likens to the world's most challenging walk-and-chew-gum exercise. '[The] one thing everybody understands is that this job right here, you don't have the luxury of just focusing on one thing,' a relaxed and reflective Obama told me in his most expansive discussion of the 2016 race to date."
Clinton's geographical advantage in Iowa
Staying with the Clinton-vs.-Sanders contest, MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald makes a very smart point: Geography likely gives Clinton a big advantage in Iowa. Why? "Iowa is a caucus not a primary. That means a supporter in one place is not necessary as valuable as a supporter in another place... Take the university towns: More than a quarter — 27 percent — of Sanders supporters come from just three counties of Iowa's 99, according to the Register poll, each home to one of the state's largest universities. But those three counties award only 12 percent of the total 1401 delegates at stake statewide. 'He's setting the world on fire on the college campuses,' [Iowa Dem strategist Jeff] Link explained. 'That's great if you're in a primary, but it's not as much if you're in a caucus.'" If Clinton wins Iowa, this will DEFINITELY be one of the reasons why. But don't discount Sanders or his operation at all.
How Michael Bloomberg creates a statistical tie between Trump and Sanders (or Trump and Clinton)
On Saturday, as much of the East Coast was snowed in by a historic blizzard, we learned that former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg is seriously preparing for a third-party run -- if Donald Trump and Ted Cruz look like your GOP nominee, and if Bernie Sanders is ahead in the Democratic contest. When Hillary Clinton was asked about a possible Bloomberg run on "Meet the Press" yesterday, she responded, per NBC's Monica Alba: "He's a good friend of mine. The way I read what he said is if I didn't get the nomination, he might consider it. Well, I'm going to relieve him of that and get the nomination so he doesn't have to." Here was Sanders' reaction on "Meet": "If Donald Trump wins and Mr. Bloomberg gets in, you're going to have two multi-billionaires running for president of the United States against me. And I think the American people do not want to see our nation move toward an oligarchy where billionaires control the political process. I think we'll win that election." But per an online Morning Consult poll (conducted Jan. 21-24), a Trump-Sanders-Bloomberg three-way race gets you a statistical tie -- Sanders 35%, Trump 34%, and Bloomberg 12%. That's almost identical to what the same poll (conducted Jan. 14-17) found in a Trump-Clinton-Bloomberg matchup -- Trump 37%, Clinton 36%, Bloomberg 13%.
One more thing a Bloomberg run would create:expanding the battleground map from 10-12 states to 40
But remember, you don't become president by winning the popular vote; you become president by winning the Electoral College. And a three-way race -- like we saw in 1992 and 1996 -- would expand the presidential battleground map into states like Arkansas, Connecticut, and Texas.
A week to go until the caucuses, it's Trump and Cruz -- and everyone else
Turning to the GOP race… With a week to go until Iowa, it seems like there's even more separation between Trump and Cruz and everyone else. Just see Sunday's Fox poll of Iowa -- Trump 34%, Cruz 23%, Rubio 12%, Carson 7%. Just asking: If finishing third puts you closer to fourth place than to second, does third place really matter? By the way, Jeb Bush is going to be in Nevada tomorrow. And with all due respect to our friend Jon Ralston, if you're campaigning in Nevada less than a week before Iowa, what does that say about your chances in the Hawkeye State?
On the trail
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley participate at a CNN forum at Drake University in Des Moines, IA beginning at 9:00 pm ET… Clinton holds three earlier events in Iowa, hitting Waukee, Knoxville, and Oskaloosa… Sanders, meanwhile, stumps in Iowa Falls, Ames, and Grinnell… Donald Trump holds a rally in Farmington, NH at 7:00 pm ET… Ted Cruz spends his day in Iowa… So does Marco Rubio… Chris Christie is in New Hampshire… Ben Carson hits the Hawkeye State… And John Kasich is in New Hampshire.
Countdown to Iowa: 7 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 15 days
—NBC News' Carrie Dann contributed to this report, which first appeared on NBCNews.com.