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.