Facing a tougher than expected challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is 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.
With the Iowa caucuses in two weeks and Mr. Sanders’s insurgent candidacy chipping away at Mrs. Clinton’s once formidable lead there, Clinton aides are acknowledging that the road to the party’s July convention could be an expensive slog. “Remember, I campaigned all the way into June last time,” Mrs. Clinton told CNN last week.
Even though the Clinton team has sought to convey that it has built a national operation, the campaign has invested much of its resources in the Feb. 1 caucuses in Iowa, hoping that a victory there could marginalize Mr. Sanders and set Mrs. Clinton on the path to the nomination. As much as 90 percent of the campaign’s resources are now split between Iowa and the Brooklyn headquarters, according to an estimate provided by a person with direct knowledge of the spending. The campaign denied that figure.
The campaign boasted last June, when Mrs. Clinton held her kickoff event on Roosevelt Island in New York, that it had at least one paid staff member in all 50 states. But the effort did not last, and the staff members were soon let go or reassigned. (Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, said they had been hired as temporary workers to sign up volunteers at the start of the campaign, an effort he said had paid off organizationally.)
The focus on Iowa, which still haunts Mrs. Clinton after the stinging upset by Barack Obama there in 2008, has been so intense that even organizers in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Feb. 9, have complained to the campaign’s leadership that they feel neglected.
On a call with supporters last week, Mrs. Clinton’s aides laid out a scenario in which the race against Mr. Sanders stretched through April, a prospect that they said would require about $50 million for a national ground operation and other expenses.
“It’s not just a question of the first two states or the first four states,” Mr. Mook said in an interview at Sunday’s Democratic debate in Charleston, S.C. “We’re going to keep going into the map as long as it takes.”
For all its institutional advantages, the Clinton campaign lags behind the Sanders operation in deploying paid staff members: For example, Mr. Sanders has campaign workers installed in all 11 of the states that vote on Super Tuesday. Mrs. Clinton does not, and is relying on union volunteers and members of supportive organizations such as Planned Parenthood to help her.
Graphic | 2016 Primary Calendar and Results The 2016 calendar is still fluid, with primary and caucus dates uncertain in more than a dozen states. Both parties are requiring all states but four to wait until March to hold their nominating contests or face delegate penalties.
“It would be good to have the momentum story the day after the caucus of ‘Oh, Bernie won,’ ” Mr. Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said, “but it’s really about grinding out the delegates, grind, grind, grind, grind, grind.”
Asked about the discrepancy between the campaigns and whether Mrs. Clinton’s team planned to put staff in all of the Super Tuesday states, Marlon Marshall, her director of state campaigns and political engagement, declined to comment specifically, and instead repeated this line three times: “We’ve had folks in states for a while.”
The scramble after the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire will be intense. If Mrs. Clinton fails to win either state and her campaign seems to be stumbling, her donations could dry up. But a loss could also motivate donors who had viewed her nomination as a foregone conclusion.
Even if Mrs. Clinton wins in Iowa, where she maintains a slight lead in most polls, Mr. Sanders could receive an outpouring of small donations if the outcome is close that would help him compete in subsequent states. Mr. Sanders, a small-state senator who has never run for national office, has shown surprising fund-raising muscle. Many of his donors have yet to give him the maximum individual contribution of $2,700, meaning they could be tapped repeatedly if the contest remains close. His campaign raised $33 million in the final quarter of 2015, just $4 million less than Mrs. Clinton.
Interactive Graphic | Who’s Winning the Presidential Campaign? History suggests that each party’s eventual nominee will emerge from 2015 in one of the top two or three positions, as measured by endorsements, fund-raising and polling.
Mrs. Clinton’s aides say they expect to win Iowa and New Hampshire and are ready for the grind. A giant whiteboard on the wall of the campaign’s headquarters maps out where staff members would be sent depending on the outcomes in the early states.
“We just game out a bunch of different scenarios,” Mr. Mook said. “It’s kind of like ‘choose your own adventure.’ ”
This is not the adventure the Clinton team would have chosen.
A prolonged primary campaign against an opponent widely popular with the party’s liberal base could exhaust donors who will also be asked to contribute to an expensive campaign to defeat the Republican nominee. A contentious race against Mr. Sanders could also weaken Mrs. Clinton’s standing among Democratic voters she would need in November.
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During the call with supporters last week, Mrs. Clinton’s aides did not talk much about Iowa, instead emphasizing the possibility that the battle with Mr. Sanders could quickly become national.
Mrs. Clinton has many strengths to exploit: In a Democratic primary, candidates are awarded delegates based on their vote totals, so Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders can get close to the roughly 2,200 needed to secure the nomination by racking up a combination of victories and solid second-place showings.
Delegates, people active in politics chosen by party leaders to represent their states at the convention, typically take the lead from whichever candidate won their state’s contest.
The Democratic Party also has “superdelegates,” or party leaders and elected officials who are free to support any candidate. Mrs. Clinton holds a large lead among these party leaders, with several hundred superdelegates signed on to support her campaign, compared with 16 or so for Mr. Sanders.
Mrs. Clinton has deep support among blacks and Latinos. Mr. Sanders, by contrast, has struggled to connect with minorities and trails Mrs. Clinton by double digits in Nevada and South Carolina, which vote later next month.
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign is counting on minority voters to help her win in the South. It has assembled “leadership councils” of elected officials, party leaders and activists who have endorsed Mrs. Clinton and has held campaign events in states beyond the early four, including the delegate-rich Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Virginia.
“Many people feel she has a comfortable firewall built past the first two contests,” said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist unaffiliated with either candidate. But, she added, if there is one thing “we’ve seen in 2016, it’s that politics is not playing by the rules it previously did.”
At a fish fry hosted by Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, held at an outdoor pavilion in Charleston on the eve of the debate on Sunday, Mrs. Clinton received a raucous welcome and chants of “Hillary! Hillary!” Mr. Sanders received a less enthusiastic response.
“Once the campaign moves past those first two states, I think the dynamics and the playing field become much more favorable to Secretary Clinton,” said Geoff Garin, a pollster who was a chief strategist on Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
Mr. Sanders’s campaign has also been crunching the delegate math. It says he can outperform Mrs. Clinton with white voters and voters under 45, who favor Mr. Sanders two to one, and pick up delegates in states that have caucuses rather than primaries.
His campaign is optimistic in states like Colorado, Minnesota and Wyoming — which hold caucuses, a system that favors the party’s most liberal voters — as well as in other states with relatively small and mostly white populations of Democrats.
“To be a Democrat in Oklahoma, you’ve got to be real liberal,” said Michael Briggs, a spokesman for Mr. Sanders.
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