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Why Clinton's apparent Iowa win feels more like a loss

Who knew that Donald Trump's defeat last night in Iowa would be only the second-most dramatic story of the evening?

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.

This story has been updated to reflect results with 100 percent of precincts reporting. 

Why Clinton's apparent win feels more like a loss

Who knew that Donald Trump's defeat last night in Iowa would be only the SECOND-most dramatic story of the evening? The most dramatic one was the announcement by NBC News, just before 4:00 am ET, declaring Hillary Clinton the apparent winner on the Democratic side, with Clinton getting 699.57 state delegate equivalents to Bernie Sanders' 695.49, with 2.28 still outstanding. (Now with 100 percent of precincts reporting, Clinton has been awarded 700.59 state delegate equivalents to Sanders' 696.82, according to the Iowa Democratic Party.)  Yes, a win is a win for the Clinton campaign. And yes, that razor-thin margin points to Sanders' limitations in states other than Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont. But there are three reasons why this apparent victory for Clinton feels more like a loss. One, there's already controversy, with the Sanders camp alleging that due to Iowa Democratic Party mismanagement, reports were late coming in from about 90 precincts, per NBC's Danny Freeman. And in an interview with NBC's Kasie Hunt, Sanders didn't rule out challenging the results. Two, winning essentially by one vote (err, five state delegate equivalents) instead of 1 percentage point, denied Clinton the opportunity to use ANY win as momentum heading into New Hampshire, where Sanders enjoys a sizable lead. And three, if you don't want to take our word for it, here's the attitude inside Clinton Land. "Clinton advisers … said they did not know if a significant staff shakeup was at hand, but they said that the Clintons were disappointed with Monday night's result and wanted to ensure that her organization, political messaging and communications strategy were in better shape for the contests to come," the New York Times writes.

But that doesn't mean that Sanders' apparent loss is a win

You have to give the Sanders campaign a lot of credit: Its "revolution" turned more than anyone had expected. (Turnout according to the state party was 171,109 -- not the nearly 240,000 from 2008, but certainly more than the 124,000 from 2004). But we stand by what we wrote yesterday: If Sanders is going to win the Democratic nomination, he needed a clear win, a la Barack Obama, to transform the races in more diverse states like South Carolina, where an NBC/WSJ/Marist poll last week found Clinton ahead, 64%-27%. Essentially tying Clinton in Iowa -- a very white and very liberal state -- points to Sanders' ceiling in states outside of New Hampshire and Vermont. And that won't be good enough, especially with Clinton's expected superdelegate advantage. As the late (and great) Darrell Royal used to say, a tie is like kissing your sister. And that's the reality this morning for both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns.

Let's get ready for the first one-on-one Democratic debate Thursday!

And what is better than just having a virtual tie in Iowa on the Democratic side? How about the first one-on-one debate between Clinton and Sanders on Thursday night that will be moderated by NBC's Chuck Todd and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in Durham, NH? (Martin O'Malley, the third Democrat in the race, dropped out last night.) By the way, look at these fascinating divides from the exit polls:

  • Clinton won among Democrats, 56%-39%
  • Sanders won among independents, 69%-26%
  • Sanders won among very liberal, 58%-39%
  • Clinton won among somewhat liberals, 50-44%, and moderates, 58%-35%
  • Clinton won among past caucus-goers, 59%-35%
  • Sanders won among first-time caucus-goers, 59%-37%
  • Sanders won among those ages 17-29, 84%-14%
  • Clinton won among those 65 and older, 69%-26%

Cruz took a punch from Trump, others and won

Turning to the Republican results out of Iowa, the pressure was on Cruz to win, and he passed the test, proving the polls and pundits wrong by defeating Trump. More than anything else, Cruz took punches from Trump (on the birther issue), from the state's Republican governor (on ethanol), and from the news media and pundits (on his debate performance, his poll position). And guess what -- he won. It proves that Cruz is resilient, and he's punched his ticket into the future rounds.

Pressure's now on Trump (to finish first in New Hampshire)

And so now the pressure is on Trump to even the score in New Hampshire, where he has enjoyed a sizable lead in the polls. We'll give Trump this: He was bold trying to win a state where evangelicals and conservative Republicans usually dominate -- all in an effort to run the table in the first two contests. But there's a big danger for the candidate whose brand is all about winning to fall to second place in the first nominating race. And so next week's New Hampshire primary is key for him. Our questions: How does he campaign this week? How does he fix his organizational deficiencies? And who, exactly, does he target on the GOP side?

Pressure's now on Rubio (to get second in New Hampshire)

The question for Marco Rubio heading into last night was if he'd have a strong third-place finish (or maybe even second place), or if it would be more of a disappointing third. Well, it was the former, with Rubio just one percentage point behind Trump - Cruz 28%, Trump 24%, Rubio 23%. While we're not going to treat Rubio's third-place finish as a victory, it does position him well in the upcoming states. And it puts pressure on him to finish second in New Hampshire, which would truly make him the establishment alternative in the field.

Your three-way GOP race?

By the way, the exit polls maybe revealed your three-way GOP race over the next couple of months. Cruz won among VERY conservatives - 44% to 21% for Trump and 15% for Rubio; Rubio won among SOMEWHAT conservatives - 29% to Trump's 24% and Cruz's 19%; and Trump won among MODERATES - 34%, to Rubio's 28% and Cruz's 9%.

The public polls were wrong, especially on the Republican side

Finally, as you know, we love everything about polls at First Read. So we have to admit that last night's polls, especially on the Republican side, were wrong -- including from the gold standard Des Moines Register. Indeed, the last eight Iowa polls that meet our standards all had Trump in the lead. But he finished second. We all have some explaining to do.

Countdown to NBC/MSNBC debate in New Hampshire: 2 days

Countdown to New Hampshire: 7 days

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