By Sam Youngman and Andy Barr | Updated: 1/3/08 11:50 PM [ET] - 01/03/08 09:42 PM EST
DES MOINES – In the closing days of the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) embraced the expectations that he would win, largely on the backs of independents and first-time caucus goers.
He repeatedly asked the traditionally unreliable caucus bloc to raise their hands, then challenged them to prove the skeptical pundits wrong. Obama’s solid win in the Iowa caucuses Thursday night amid record-shattering turn-out indicates they did just that.
Thursday afternoon, state officials were predicting a record turn-out, but the actual totals were nothing less than shocking.
Anecdotal evidence showed that Obama’s victory came largely from the efforts of young, first-time caucus goers – two groups that had traditionally been long on promise and short on results.
The Hill observed all of Obama’s winning ingredients at Precinct 65 at the Mikel Community Center in Des Moines, though it has to be noted that the state party’s arcane system left the Illinois senator tied for delegates there with Edwards and Clinton.
In retrospect, the first positive sign for Obama was the size of the crowd. Caucus chairman Dan Gray said that in his 14 years in his capacity, he had never seen near as many participants.
In 2004, Gray said there were 60 participants who showed up. This year he expected 110. But after the doors were shut and the first of many counts was taken, Gray announced that there were 207 caucus-goers in the room.
After the first preference groups were formed it was clear that Obama was in the driver’s seat, earning the support of over half of caucus goers -- after unviable candidates were eliminated -- and the vast majority of young participants.
Young caucus goers played a prominent role in the precinct, not only in numbers but also with strategy. Many of the younger members were successful in picking off undecided and unenergetic participants, even pulling members away from Edwards and Clinton.
Obama’s group was not able to pull over enough support for him to win two of the precincts three delegates, but they did take away enough delegates from Edwards that the North Carolina Democrat was no longer viable on the second vote. After a quick call to the state Democratic Party, Gray determined that a candidate could not lose viability after the second vote.
Obama picked up most of the released voters in the room, jumping from a count of roughly 70 of the 207 caucus goers to 109, with seemingly all of them cheering throughout.
When asked about his success courting caucus goers, Obama precinct chairman Austin Kennedy, 29, of Des Moines, Iowa said, “It’s just the candidate really. There was a little bit of personal persuasion, but people want generally to be on the winning side.”
Kennedy was one of at least three young Obama precinct captains in the room, and the team was able to effectively divide and conquer undecided or unviable caucus participants.
Though Kennedy was not able to court enough participants for Obama to take a second delegate, the young and energetic Obama group clearly had a strong handle on the complicated Democratic caucusing system and the enthusiasm to court fellow caucus-goers with chants, cheers and persistent attention to unviable groups.
Looking forward to New Hampshire, where the top three candidates headed late Thursday night, Obama has serious reason to believe that he can repeat his Iowa success.
New Hampshire independents can vote in either primary, and with a convincing win in Iowa, Obama will be able to claim momentum and electability and ease the concerns of those who liked his message but feared his chances.
For Clinton, hope lies in the fact that New Hampshire is a simpler process with more moderate voters. She can also put some faith in the enduring organization and good will built by her husband’s campaign there in 1992, two built-in ingredients Clinton lacked in Iowa because the former president never competed seriously there.
Edwards appeared to take the battle to Clinton immediately after the caucuses, saying that the “status quo lost and change won.”
The Edwards campaign did not mention Obama in its statement, pointing instead to Clinton as the candidate who outspent Edwards despite the fact that it was Obama who far outspent the rest of the Democratic field.