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What happened in Iowa

Before the ink hardens on journalists’ first draft of history, let’s examine what really happened in Iowa. (Note: I’m writing before any New Hampshire votes have been cast.)

Much of the commentary suggests Barack Obama’s victory was based on turnout — he expanded the electorate in unique ways, bringing into the process new voters who gave him the Iowa win. While some of the facts bear a passing resemblance to reality, Obama owes his Iowa victory much more to message and personal appeal than to turnout.

Until the very end, Hillary Clinton chose to communicate an “experience” message, while Obama had seamlessly transitioned his appeal from “hope” to “hope and change.”

Based on public polls, we had every reason to expect change would triumph — at least as a message. In August, Democrats nationally preferred a candidate who “has a strong desire to change the system …” by a 47-point margin over one with “experience getting things done …”

A November ABC/Washington Post poll of Iowa caucus-goers found 55 percent identifying Obama’s “new direction and new ideas” as their top priority, compared with 33 percent who preferred the “strength and experience” Clinton was stressing.

Indeed, every single public poll agreed that change was more compelling than experience.

On caucus night, voters responded to that distinction. Asked which of four qualities was most important to them, over half selected the ability to make change, and Obama beat Clinton among those voters by a stunning 51 percent to 19 percent. By contrast, just 20 percent identified experience as most salient — a group that dutifully supported Clinton over Obama by an even larger 49 percent to 5 percent margin.

Voters lined up rather precisely with the candidates’ messages. Clinton dominated among experience voters; Obama took the change vote. Obama’s advantage was predicated on the overwhelming preference for change.

Of course, Obama’s electric personality added significantly to his appeal in a way public polls simply do not measure. There is little doubt he did a better job of forging an emotional connection with voters than did Clinton. The New York senator could have succeeded on this dimension — she simply did not.

So message mattered, but didn’t Obama’s ability to attract new voters really decide the outcome? Not so much.

Turnout did increase, though that should not have been a surprise. A 400 percent increase in campaign spending over 2004 produced a 90 percent increase in turnout, as great organizations deployed by all the candidates found creative new ways to bring people to the caucuses, while the vast spending ratcheted up excitement and the sense of importance attached to the contest.

But this was not only a function of the Obama campaign’s good work.

For the aficionados, it is not clear how well the entrance polls measure this dimension. They indicate that 57 percent were attending their first caucus, compared to 46 percent in 2000. However, the Iowa Democratic Party’s voter file tells a different story about 2000. According to the file, 55 percent of those who attended in 2000 were first-timers. Which data is the better source? Is there a discrepancy in 2008?

No way to know.

But we can be fairly certain that it did not make a decisive difference. Crunching the entrance poll data reveals that if the proportion of new and veteran attendees had been the same in 2008 as it was in 2004 or 2000, Obama would still have won by a substantial 7-point margin.

Barack Obama won Iowa by capturing the hearts and minds of Iowans with a captivating personal image and a compelling message. All the campaigns contributed to an energized Democratic turnout, which presages great things for November.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.