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Razor-Thin Iowa Caucus Margin Bolsters Sanders Supporters

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Evan Vucci
/
AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders arrives for a caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa.

In a photo finish early Tuesday, the Iowa Democratic Party declared Hillary Clinton the winner in Monday's Iowa Caucus. She edged out Sen. Bernie Sanders by a mere fraction of a percent, 49.9 percent to 49.6 percent, in what NPR calls "the thinnest of margins in the closest Democratic contest ever." And Sanders’ supporters say a tie is as good as a win for the Vermont senator. 

On the Republican side, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the caucus, with 28 percent of the vote. Donald Trump trailed him, with 24 percent.

At Bernie Sanders' campaign headquarters in Des Moines, the crowd went from nervous and quiet to jubilant as the votes came in over the course of the evening. 

A diverse mix of people — couples, parents with trailing babies and children and senior citizens — stood in line Monday evening at the River Woods Elementary School in southeastern Des Moines.

Iowa Caucuses: See The Results And Get The Highlights

Even before the process officially begins, supporters separate into two main camps on either side of the basketball court. The Sanders folks cluster under their signs on the left. And the Hillary Clinton team sits in a horseshoe arrangement of folding chairs near a poster reading “Hill YES”.

Henry Claytor says he caucused for Barack Obama in 2008. And this year he feels Clinton has the most experience for the job. 

"I’m with Hillary, to support Hillary, to make sure she gets nominated," he says.

The initial count puts Clinton at 107 votes and Sanders at 83. Seven support former Maryland Gov. Martin O‘ Malley. Twelve are undecided.

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Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR
Caucus-goers show their support at Precinct 71 in Des Moines.

Leaders of the Sanders and Clinton camp quickly surround the undecided voters and the O’Malley supporters in effort to sway them to join their candidate.

“This is the point where you need to make the decision, you can either join the political revolution," one Sanders' backer says. "Or there's the tried and true establishment. I would recommend joining Bernie.”

The conversation quickly descends into chaotic argument where the voices blur together. The remaining two undecided voters listen patiently as the rhetoric crescendos into argument.

See video from the evening on our Tumblr, VPR Field Notes.

After the allotted 30 minutes of persuasion, there’s a recount. Clinton ultimately wins five delegates from this precinct and Sanders takes four  

Across the state, tallies are beginning to roll in and the race is as close as the results from River Woods Elementary School.

And over at Sanders' headquarters, volunteers begin to fill the hotel ballroom, where results are projected on two screens. As more and more precincts report, the crowd grows more jubilant and raucous.

With 90 percent of the vote in, Hillary Clinton appears on the screens and declares victory. The Sanders crowd is not receptive. When she declares she's a progressive, the crowd boos.

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Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR
'I think the people of Iowa have sent a very profound message to the political establishment, to the economic establishment and, by the way, to the media establishment,' Sanders said in a speech to supporters late Monday night.

The TV screens freeze and the crowd cheers. When the results appear again,  Sanders is closing in on Clinton.

Finally, Sanders appears and declares a "virtual tie."

"And while the results are still not complete, it looks like we’ll have about half the Iowa delegates," Sanders says.

Marcos Munoz, a volunteer and precinct captain in Des Moines, is pleased with the result. “To me, this is a good win from where we started to where we're at now. I’ll take this, any day. It's not over yet. I think we still don’t know where we’re at. But I think when everything is all said and done, I believe we actually won," he says.

His enthusiasm and celebration is matched by the more than 100 supporters flooding out of the ballroom.

"I mean, a candidate with his stances ... Sometimes I think this could sell in Vermont, but to sell it to the nation, it's a hard sell. And the fact that we did it, it's very impressive." - Marcos Munoz, volunteer and precinct captain

"We got the momentum going ... this is remarkable. I mean, a candidate with his stances, sometimes I think this could sell in Vermont, but to sell it to the nation, it’s a hard sell, and the fact that we did it, it's very impressive," he says.

Linda Quach, like many supporters this evening, calls the night a victory for Sanders. She says it gives him the momentum he needs to continue on.

Natasha Nguyen came out with her friends to celebrate.  

"He was really close to Hillary, I feel like he still has a chance — I mean, they were so close in the race," she says. "And he’s winning New Hampshire. So I'm sure going forward it's going to be good for Bernie."

Sanders is polling well in New Hampshire, whose primary is a week from today. And with the March 1 Super Tuesday on the horizon, the crowd here hopes Sanders can continue to carry the enthusiasm to states where he has yet to establish a stronghold.

Update Feb. 2 at 1:45 p.m.: Democratic results updated to reflect the latest count according to NPR

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