A few minutes after Barack Obama’s victory speech last night I ran into the ubiquitous Gordon Fischer, the former Iowa Democratic chairman turned dedicated Obama booster. In the weeks leading up to the caucuses, Fischer had developed a reputation for slightly-excessive optimism. For instance, when I’d seen him at an Obama event four days earlier, the pundits were whispering about an Obama swoon. Fischer pronounced the race “dead even." He’d also predicted a caucus-night turnout of 200,000 people—something most of us deemed preposterous.
As it happened, of course, Fischer was too conservative. Obama won by a comfortable 8-point margin over John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. Turnout soared to a breathtaking 239,000--over 100,000 more than 2004. “You were wrong,” I needled Fischer. “I was wrong about lots of things,” he shot back. He looked a little stunned as he said this—as though he were fully prepared to be wrong, just not in this direction.
Much of the run-up to the caucuses in Iowa had been dominated by a debate about Tuesday’s Des Moines Register poll, which showed Obama up comfortably over Clinton and Edwards thanks to support from an unusually high number of non-Democrats (independents and Republicans), first-time caucus-goers, and young people. Fischer had sided with his hometown paper, whose poll is considered the Grade-A brand of caucus opinion-research. But the numbers looked screwy on their face, and many journalists and campaign hacks had simply rejected them. Mark Penn, Hillary’s chief strategist, derided Register’s model as “unprecedented.” (He didn’t mean it in a good way.) Edwards pollster Harrison Hickman groused that it was “at odds with the known tenets of partisan caucus participation.” The complaints became so noisy that the Register felt obliged to run a follow-up story. The headline: “Dem camps doubt some poll figures.”
In the end, the skeptics weren’t completely wrong. The poll anticipated that 45 percent of caucus-goers would be non-Democrats—according to the “entrance polls,” only 20 percent were, not far out of line with the historical average. On the other hand, 57 percent of caucus-goers were attending their first caucus last night, while almost a quarter were under age 30—two surprises no one but the Register had foreseen. This turned out to be great news for Barack Obama, who picked up 40 percent of the newbies and a remarkable 57 percent of the youngsters.
How’d he do it? You often hear that there are two approaches to winning a caucus: Organization and momentum. The Obama campaign benefited from both. On Tuesday I shadowed an Obama precinct captain named Monica Green as she canvassed in Ankeny, a Republican-leaning suburb just north of Des Moines. Green was herself a former Republican—in fact, she was still registered with the GOP until a few minutes before caucus time. This gave her instant credibility with her neighbors. At one point we showed up at the home of a fellow Republican named Rhonda, who was also supporting Obama. “Don’t I know you from church?” Monica said when Rhonda answered the door. (She did.)
As we were leaving, Monica asked Rhonda to show up at the caucus site around 5:30—a full hour-and-a-half before the proceedings would start--so they’d have time to get their bearings. It was the kind of request you say yes to even when you have no intention of following through. But when I showed up at 5:40, Rhonda had long since settled in, along with her husband and her 17-year-old son. It’s hard to believe that some out-of-stater would have enjoyed the same powers of moral suasion.
Monica was a force of nature. She’d called me back at eleven o’clock on New Year’s Eve to firm up our canvassing plans, then showed up at an Obama rally at 9:30 the following morning. (It didn’t start till after 11.) She’d taken in two Obama volunteers from Denver and planted her 90-year-old mother in front of a television to keep an eye on Obama-related news. But, what’s so remarkable about Obama’s victory last night is that it probably would have happened even if his campaign hadn’t been teaming with Monica Greens.
Some ninety caucusers changed or updated their party registration at our precinct last night, which led to a record turnout of 209. Many of the Obama supporters among them—52 in all, as compared with 15 for Edwards and 10 for Hillary--had never heard of Monica. And when I asked what had drawn them to the candidate, they were exceedingly vague. “I like his message,” said a forty-something named Bob, who sported a pony tail and jeans and last pulled the lever for George Bush the elder. “He’s new, he’s fresh,” said an independent named Diane. “I like what he stands for.” These weren’t the freakishly well-informed Iowans I’d met on the campaign trail. They didn’t know about health care mandates or payroll tax increases. They’d just heard about this Barack Obama guy at some point and really dug him.
Alas, it’s hard to see how these dynamics change moving forward. Obama won 41 percent of independents according to the entrance poll—the people who often struggle to explain their support without struggling to show it. If the Democratic race stays interesting, they’ll almost certainly account for a larger share of the New Hampshire vote than they did in Iowa last night. (And if it doesn’t stay interesting, that will be because Obama has run away with it.) Meanwhile, up to 50 percent of the voters in South Carolina’s contest could be African Americans. Now that Obama has demonstrated his electability, it’s hard to believe they won’t come home for him, giving him a huge floor on which to build. And, in both of these states, Obama will benefit from attrition among Edwards supporters—who, fairly or not, will have seen their man fall short of his pundit-assigned bar.
As if that weren’t enough, the Penns and Hickmans of the world only enhanced Obama’s aura with their kibitzing this week. As Democratic pollster Mark Blumenthal has pointed out, once you’ve slammed a poll’s assumptions as “unprecedented,” you can’t withhold that label from a man who went out and vindicated them. (Nonetheless, I suspect Penn is already at work on a memo that attempts to square this circle.)
Then there’s the speech. If Dean’s famous scream took the downward momentum of his third-place Iowa finish and accelerated it to the Nth degree, Obama’s may accomplish the same thing in reverse. This is, if not the first time most Americans have heard Obama speak, then certainly the first time since 2004. He was as lyrical and uplifting as I’ve ever heard him last night—to say nothing of him casually hoisting his daughter into his arms. It will obviously be the most YouTubed video of the evening.
And, yet, you still detect a faint sense of queasiness in certain corners of the Obama camp. Fischer, for one, couldn’t help speculating about the elaborate counter-offensive the Clintons had in store for New Hampshire. “They’re working on something,” he told me.
He’s almost certainly right. If nothing else, keep this in mind: On the Clinton payroll is one Michael Whouley, probably the most revered organizer in the Democratic Party. Several weeks ago, the press learned that Whouley would not be setting foot in Iowa—that he’d focus exclusively on New Hampshire. This prompted two theories: One was that the Clintons were so confident in Iowa they didn’t need to bother the party’s best operative. The other was that they were so pessimistic that they opted to focus every ounce of Whouley’s efforts on building a firewall instead.
We now know theory number one probably wasn’t true. We’ll see what Whouley comes up with.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.