DUBUQUE – As they left Dubuque County Precinct 19’s Democratic presidential caucus, supporters of Illinois Senator Barack Obama grabbed up campaign signs they had placed a few hours earlier outside downtown Dubuque’s Carnegie-Stout Library.
“We’ll need these in November,” they shouted with delight, expressing the confidence that comes with having just written a new narrative for the 2008 presidential race.
The polls going into Thursday night’s Iowa caucuses showed Obama leading New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the national frontrunner, and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who at one time was the Iowa front-runner. But his backers, most of them young and many first-time caucus participants, were not quite ready to believe it when they showed up to caucus at the library on Dubuque’s Bluff Street.
But, as in so many of the 3,000 precincts across Iowa, the Obama backers of Precinct 19 knew within minutes that something remarkable, something beyond their wildest hopes, was about to play out.
Obama would win not just Precinct 19 but the whole of the first-caucus state of Iowa, taking 38 percent of the statewide vote to 30 percent for Edwards and 29 percent for Clinton. On the strength of his Iowa win, Obama declared, “Change is coming to America!”
Even as the Iowa results were being tabulated, change was coming to the race for the Democratic nomination for president.
Two senior senators, Delaware Senator Joe Biden and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, signaled that they would drop out of the Democratic race. The campaign of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who finished fourth in Iowa with just two percent of the caucus votes, was on life support going into next Tuesday’s critical New Hampshire primary. And former front-runner Hillary Clinton was struggling to right her campaign before next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
“We beat the Clinton machine!” shouted Gabe Ward, a 29-year-old Obama team leader for Precinct 19. “We beat the expectations. And we did it by turning out a whole new generation of Democratic voters.”
It had been said for weeks that if turnout was high for the caucuses, Obama would have the advantage.
Turnout was not just high in Precinct 19, it was extraordinary. In 2004, when Democrats had a very competitive contest for the nomination, 77 people showed up for the caucus in downtown Dubuque.
Last night, 219 people showed up. The crowd spilled out of the third-floor auditorium of the library into adjoining rooms.
When caucus chair Nick Lucy asked newcomers to raise their hands, roughly half of the people in the room indicated that this was their first time caucuses.
“Wow!” declared Lucy, a veteran Dubuque Democrat.
It was the same across Iowa, where Democratic turnout for the caucuses almost doubled to 220,000 on the strength of a massive influx of young voters. Seated front and center for the Precinct 19 caucuses was Brianna Cleland, a 22-year-old recent college graduate who is now teaching in Dubuque. How much did she know about caucusing? “Not much until today,” she admitted. “I had someone explain it to me this morning. It sounded like a skewed way of picking dodge ball teams. But I knew I wanted to do it.”
And she knew who she wanted to do it for.
“I really want to make something happen in America,” she explained. “And the way to do that is with someone new, with someone different, and that’s Barack Obama.”
Pre-caucus polls showed that Iowa Democrats wanted change. And Obama was the embodiment of that demand.
“I’m ready for change and I fell that Obama is the change candidate,” said 25-year-old Liz Wagner, a high school social studies teacher who caucuses wearing an orange “I Caucus for Darfur” t-shirt that expressed her concern for a neglected region of Africa and her desire for the new and more engaged foreign policies Obama promised on the campaign trail.
“I’m glad that he was opposed to the Iraq War before it started,” Wagner said of Obama. “It shows he has some judgment. That’s more that you can say about most of the other candidates or most of the Democrats in Congress.”
When it was announced that 89 of the people in the room had signed in as Obama supporters, Wagner and those around her leapt to their feet and cheered. That was almost the number caucusing for Hillary Clinton – 46 — and dramatically more than the 18 who registered for Edwards.
Clinton and Edwards backers were clearly deflated, as were supporters of Delaware Senator Joe Biden, who tallied 18, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, none of whom attracted even 10 backers to the Precinct 19 caucus.
Caucuses are different from elections, however. The initial count is just that, an initial count. Then comes the jockeying for support from backers of candidates who fell short.
To gain one of Precinct 19’s seven delegates to the county convention in March – the next stage in the process of selecting delegates to this summer’s Democratic National Convention – a candidate had to have 33 caucusers . The Edwards and Biden campaigns started hustling immediately to win over backers of Richardson, Dodd and Kucinich, as well as uncommitted caucusers. At the same time, Obama and Clinton backers sought to up their tallies.
It was a wild scene. Katherine Kluseman, an arts administrator, walked from group to group announcing, “If anyone is even remotely interested in John Edwards and his message… come join up for Edwards.”
“C’mon over for Joe Biden,” shouted Chad Witthoeft, a local bar owner. When Richardson backers suggested that Biden’s people might join them in supporting the New Mexico governor, Witthoeft said, “This about the signal you’re sending. Think about who could be vice president. Richardson looks like (the late ‘Saturday Night Live’ star) John Belushi.”
When all was said and done, Edwards and Biden both reached the threshold. But Obama’s crew went from strength to strength, attracting backers from the Kucinich and Richardson camps in sufficient numbers to secure three delegates, while Clinton won 2 and Edwards and Biden had one each.
Statewide, Obama secured 940 delegates to the state convention, while Edwards had 744. Clinton got 737. Richardson had 53, Biden had 23, Dodd had 1.
Before the night was done, Obama would tell a crowd of wildly-cheering supporters at his victory party in Des Moines that “on this January night, at this defining moment in our history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.”
“We are ready to believe again,” declared the senator.
The folks in Dubuque’s Precinct 19 weren’t able to make it to Des Moines. But they understood exactly what Obama was saying. They had lived it on a cold January night in Iowa.
“My friends in Oregon have been lobbying me to participate in the caucuses,” explained Marianne Oberdoerster, a 40-year-old member of the staff at Loras College who recently moved to Dubuque from the west coast. “They all say: You’ve got the power. And I guess we do. Isn’t that remarkable? We have the power. We’ve made Barack Obama a serious contender for president of the United States.”