The 2008 Iowa Caucuses — a Newcomer Breaks Through

It’s an odd political moment: both major parties are hosting their most open Presidential primaries in memory — no incumbents are running for President. Both have surfaced strong fields with odd and colorful candidates. In both parties, candidates have emerged from single digit oblivion to at least momentary seriousness. Front runners in both parties have faltered: Romney to the improbable Mike Huckabee, Clinton and Edwards to Barack Obama.

Over turkey at Thanksgiving, my teenage son and I realized that the 2008 Iowa caucuses were going to be an incredible political showdown. We wanted to go see it for ourselves. At 15, Jamie is and old enough and smart enough to care a bit about these things. He made noises at Thanksgiving about wanting to study in China while in high school, which confirmed that time was short. We bought cheap tickets to Kansas City, rented an SUV, and headed north through ice and snow to Iowa. A few hours later, we joined Barack Obama in a junior high gym in Des Moines.

Political tourism during the Iowa caucuses is vastly under-rated. Iowa is so small that you can easily meet every major candidate up close — and so damned cold that you won’t have a lot of company. Jamie grabbed a copy of the US constitution at a Mike Huckabee event and got candidates to sign different parts of it. He has signatures from Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Chris Dodd. He has spoken to Bill and Chelsea Clinton, Hillary, Huckabee, and Romney. We have seen candidates in small restaurants, a town library, a frigid airport hanger, college lecture halls, a swanky country club, campaign headquarters, and a supporter’s house.

Iowa is cold in December. At a Romney event, I left my latte in the car figuring it might offend Mormon sensibilities and found it frozen solid 90 minutes later (Romney could have cared less. When a woman having her picture taken with him suddenly realized she had a drink in her had, he reassured her “it’s not illegal for you — just for me” — and when he signed the JamKid’s constitution he took pains to avoid signing the 18th amendment). That evening the thermometer hit 5 degrees and we attended an event with Bill Clinton in Knoxville that was held in an unheated shed in the corner of the local air field. Medics brought in blankets for sobbing children, but nobody left early.

Iowa is a small state with fewer than 3 million people living in 2,000 towns, 1700 precincts, and 99 counties. It is served by 60 WalMarts. It holds a caucus not a primary. When you show up to a Democratic caucus, you assemble with those who support your candidate or you stand with undecided voters. There is a fair amount of jousting to urge attendees to affiliate or defect. At some point a count is made and those candidates that do not have 15% of total attendees are declared not viable and disbanded. Attendees may then re-affiliate with viable candidates. Once only viable candidates remain, the precinct allocates delegates and reports its totals. After nearly a year of campaigning, this becomes the first test of a Presidential candidate’s viability.

Democrats and Republicans have fielded credible candidates this year in Iowa. It seems likely that Democrat Iowans will tomorrow end the White House dreams of three Senators and a Governor: Senators Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and (former Senator) John Edwards and Governor Bill Richardson. These are exceptionally serious people who have moved their families to Iowa, raised millions of dollars, opened dozens of offices, and campaigned very hard for months. Thanks to decisions by 200,000 activist Iowans, their campaigns will end tomorrow. That 15% of Iowa’s registered voters, who are already far more homogeneous than the rest of the US, are able to thin the Presidential herd is of course, outrageous and undemocratic. I would end the practice tomorrow — and we would in many ways be poorer if I did.

The paradox noted by everyone who has been here is that the Iowa caucuses may not be democratic, but they serve a valuable purpose. They force candidates to work in very small towns and in very intimate settings. Candidates need to make themselves available to discussion and challenge with the same people repeatedly over a period of many months. Raising money and running ads won’t get it done — this is pure retail politics. You build supporters one at a time, you recruit and motivate a field organization, you track activist supporters and hang on to them despite highly competitive campaigning, and you get them to turn out for you on election day. It is extraordinarily demanding work — candidates do 5-6 events each day and many visit all 99 counties in a state that to a Californian looks downright empty.

The Iowa Caucuses are always intense — but nothing like 2008. Four years ago John Kerry reportedly had 20 paid staffers in Iowa. At the moment, Hillary and Obama each have more than 400. CNN reports that more than 5,000 people are volunteering to drive Clinton delegates to the polls. Mitt Romney has spent $17 million of his own money here plus that much again from donors. Money is not the main determinant of success because media plays a relatively small role (indeed press coverage of candidate media has been more important than the media itself). The campaign is cacophonous and unrelenting; activists love it but ordinary mortals are begging for relief.

What have I learned? We are sending some talented guys home. Richardson, Biden, and Dodd will finish tomorrow in that order and should. Richardson is serious VP material, Biden would be a fine Secretary of State, and Dodd was probably meant to be an outstanding US Senator. Any of these guys would have been a better nominee than John Kerry and any of them would have beat George Bush, so from one perspective the average level in the race is going up.

Biden’s campaign seemed disorganized (lousy advance and event staff: the audio didn’t work, but it didn’t matter since few people showed up anyway. His staff did not sign people in and even the rock music was tepid). Biden himself is brevity-challenged, but many of us with Irish DNA have that problem. He made wonderful use of his family, including his 90 year old mom and an older brother who did not hesitate to shout out “thank you, Senator” when the answers had gone on too long. Biden is a chronic name-dropper, which is probably an occupational hazard if you chair Foreign Affairs, but having the cell phones of world leaders is really less important than having something to say to them.

We did not see Richardson — could not make the maps overlap. Chris Dodd is the second finest Senator from Connecticut but was frankly out of his league. His staff were pitiful (would not walk two doors down to invite Japan’s leading TV network to the event) and the campaign theme music was lame (if you want Van Morrison, go with You’ll Come Running to Me, not Wild Night is Calling. Figure out that it’s a John Mellencamp song and that Mellencamp is headlining for Edwards tonight.)

Dodd is a great guy, carries a nontrivial Firefighters endorsement, filibustered a couple weeks ago to prevent the telcos from being indemnified for releasing phone records — but is not someone with a differentiated message or a unique ability to deliver it. His candidacy is DOA and it is fine with me if Iowa breaks him the news. He moved his wife and young kids to Iowa and has been living on a bus for months, so he can return home knowing that he gave it a good try.

Barack Obama has a real shot at the Presidency. I arrived thinking that this was incredibly exciting and I leave thinking it as well. But Bill Clinton is right, even if he is in no position to say so: Obama is a roll of the dice. Barack has never experienced the full Republican attack machine (Hillary says she is the only one who can claim that. I beg to differ: ask John McCain).

Barack Obama is Harvard Law smart and he has the evangelist’s gift of pulling hope out of a crowd’s soul, holding it up as his own deepest aspiration, and catalyzing people to action. His style is serious; he is alternately professor and preacher. He is an orator — and most politicians are not. That’s the exciting part.

He appears very well organized from his field team to his website. His venues are well-chosen and packed. His volunteers are meticulous about getting people to sign commitment cards, which are the currency of these events (the cards of course, get you in a caucus database and ensure that your phone will not stop ringing with earnest reminders of the blessed event). Obama’s events are well staged. The audio works, the rock music is loud and well chosen (OK, in a race against Hillary, I would have added “Devil with a Blue Dress On” to the play list to see if anyone got the joke, but they didn’t ask me).

I like Obama, as any reader of this blog knows. I have also surfaced concerns about his tactical mistakes and about screwups and missed opportunities. I leave Iowa however, with grave reservations about his understanding of national security issues and his ability and willingness to lead an intelligent fight against militant Islam. Democrats need to recognize that this is a huge issue, even if George Bush thinks so too.

At at time when the US military is gaining enormous ground on al Qaeda in Iraq, I’d like to hear Obama say “We will fight al Qaeda and their cronies anywhere and in any country — either with our allies or without them. Furthermore, I will do my level best to find and kill Osama Bin Laden”. Otherwise, this is a very odd time to be electing a national security novice with dovish instincts.

Hilary Clinton is a much better political leader than I gave her credit for. She knows how things get done in government and strikes me as easily the best prepared candidate. Her personal biography, separate from her husband’s, is impressive, as is the passion of people who know her well. In a race featuring six US senators, ten senators have endorsed Hillary; no other Senator has the support of more than two (Senators do not endorse quickly or easily, especially in primaries). I remain deeply ambiguous about the Clinton legacy and hostile to the notion of the dynastic nature of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. But she is far more knowledgeable, practical, and trustworthy on national security; she has a highly practical energy agenda, and I’d bet she gets health care right this time, even if her personal hubris was a larger factor last time than either she or her husband publicly acknowledge. She would be an immeasurably stronger candidate than John Kerry or Al Gore. Pity she is a Clinton (although Bill is doing a phenomenal job campaigning for her in Iowa. It was for him that we braved three hours on a bitter cold airfield).

John Edwards is a useful menace. Edwards is the macho populist in the race. He gives a very passionate, effective stump speech promising to rip into big corporations and assuring his listeners that “you cannot ‘nice’ these guys into submission”. There is truth to this — but a guy who wants to stand his ground instead of finding common ground will get nothing done. For this reason, Obama and probably Clinton are gonna crush him. Credit Edwards with making poverty a campaign issue — even if a multi-millionaire hedge fund advisor is not the ideal messenger. In his soul, John Edwards looks to me like a trial lawyer who loves to fight for the little guy against the big guys — even if he lives and sometimes thinks like a big guy. There is a place for trial lawyers like that (although I wish they would support Republicans, not just Democrats) and John Edwards should become one of them again. Edwards needs a strong showing in Iowa or he is finished.

Mitt Romney is a great man who has is turning out to be a terrible candidate. I was never highly likely to support Romney, but he came to the campaign with huge assets: an attractive family, including a father who was also a famous CEO and also a Republican governor of a blue state. Mitt had turned around Bain and the Salt Lake City Olympics — a stunning story. He has earned the fierce loyalty of his people and repaid it many times. As a Republican, he brought universal health care to Massachusetts! He never needed more than that to run on competence, competence, competence — which in today’s Republican Party is differentiation enough.

Instead, Mitt has flipped, trimmed, and pandered. He tacked hard right on social issues to try to win social conservatives. He altered longstanding positions on abortion, immigration, and gun control in order to play hard for the right wing vote of a right wing Iowa party. Voters smelled a rat. They knew that this is s not who Mitt Romney is and it’s not who George Romney was. Conservatives who are evangelicals or social conservatives looked around and spotted one of their own in Mike Huckabee — who, as Bill Clinton points out with some pride, is an Arkansas good ol’ boy who can tell a joke and a story — a skill that does not seem to come as easily to a Mormon from Michigan.

At a John McCain pre-caucus meeting tonight, I realized why McCain spent today doing four events in New Hampshire before coming to Iowa: Mike Huckabee is doing McCain’s job for him in Iowa. With the evolution-denying Huckabee siphoning off Romney’s support, McCain (who is dead in Iowa anyway because he opposes ethanol subsidies and doesn’t think shipping 12 million illegals home is such a practical idea) is free to work New Hampshire, where conservatives are libertarian not theocratic — and generally walk upright.

Mike Huckabee is a charming idiot who is helping McCain. He is a friendly fool who makes George Bush look like a genius. We joined his New Year’s Eve party at a Des Moines country club. The hairsprayed ladies, home-schoolers, and corn-fed gents in cheap ties were wrestling with a slight problem: their candidate had clearly lost his marbles that day. A few hours earlier Huckabee had held a press conference announcing that he was pulling off the air an ad he had spent the previous day shooting. When he announced this, the press literally broke out laughing at him. He then showed them the ads, which were, of course, posted on You-Tube within minutes. This from a guy whose response to the Bhutto assassination was to call for the sealing of the US border with Mexico. My former union, the Machinists, has endorsed the Huckster because they, like him, are an enchilada short of a combination plate. Huckabee will be revealed as a lightweight who can tell a joke, play bass guitar, and lose 75 lbs but not get nominated. If he is giving Romney trouble in Iowa — and he is — Romney has nobody to blame but himself.

The Republicans could do worse than run John McCain. McCain is arguably the toughest and greatest person running. He is often honest to a fault: on ethanol, on immigration, and on Iraq. Joe Lieberman has endorsed him for President — and I take that fairly seriously. But McCain is surrounding himself with religious ranters. Tonight he was introduced first by an honorable group of veterans including some who had been POWs with him. Then they trotted out Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator who only recently ended his own presidential ambitions. Brownback gave the standard right to life, overturn Roe v Wade, and give us back our Supreme Court pitch to an entirely uninterested audience. He clearly should have endorsed Huckabee and wandered Iowa preaching to those who have already suffered from a bit too much preaching. If McCain comes in third in Iowa and wins in New Hampshire, as seems possible tonight, he is in the game for real.

Wow. The caucus is over. What a night. Where but America can a politician with no obvious advantages apart from being well-organized, energetic, thoughtful, and eloquent go from unknown to political powerhouse in a few short years?

A race with more than a dozen candidates is now focused on Barack Obama and John McCain — one of the youngest presidential candidates in US history vs. one of the oldest. Like a talented running back, Barack Obama has twisted clear of his opposition and now has a clear path to the White House. He has ample time to fumble or get caught from behind — but he is quick, increasingly sure of his moves and unlikely to drop the ball.

How did this happen? Having noted three months ago here that the race was Hillary Clinton’s to lose, I had to go to Iowa to see exactly how she was managing to lose it. What I saw was as close to a revolution as you get in American politics.

Quite simply, Barack Obama is the real deal. He is a driven and experienced organizer, an inspired speaker, and a massively successful fundraiser. He is attracting first rate talent to his campaign and rallying young people and first time voters in record numbers. Like all candidates, he will surely be bloodied and bowed by opponents and by events. He will make mistakes. But if he takes New Hampshire on Tuesday — and I am betting he will — he will very likely become the next President of the United States.

How is this possible? Remember, eight years ago, Obama was so little known that he could not get a floor pass for the Democratic Convention. Four years ago he introduced himself to the party with one of the best speeches ever given at a Democratic convention.

In the late sixties, following the corruption of the Watergate scandal, American political parties reformed the traditional party boss-dominated process of selecting delegates to presidential nominating conventions. Since that time, by accident more than design, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries have become both incubator and abattoir of American political ambitions. As James Madison warned however, this process can produce inspired leaders and it can produce demagogues. I love it at the moment, but it is not hard to see how it backfires.

In the Iowa caucuses insurgents are born and established politicians either fly or die. The caucuses are to the Presidency what the Scholastic Aptitude Test is to college admissions: much easier to critique than to replace as a device for separating the weak from the strong. (Actually, better approaches are not hard to come by, just hard to implement. Rotating the first primary among the two of the ten smallest states and staging the remaining primaries with largest states last would be a huge improvement. But the US Constitution makes no mention of political parties, so there is no federal authority to govern such matters. It is up to the states – and New Hampshire has passed a state law declaring that it will always hold the first primary).

The first person to recognize the importance of early primaries was a southern governor whose national name recognition was less than two percent. Not only did experts give Jimmy Carter little chance of winning in 1972, but when Carter told his own family of his intention to run for President, his mother famously asked him, “President of what?”
Carter won the Iowa caucus and used the momentum to win the New Hampshire primary. He pioneered the approach used by every modern presidential insurgent. John Kerry, a better-known Senator, won both Iowa and New Hampshire in 2004 against the heavily favored Howard Dean. Dean’s speech at the conclusion of the Iowa caucus was the unhinged “Dean scream” that ended his Presidential campaign.

The Iowa caucuses end most Presidential dreams – especially those by experienced Senators. Since Carter took advantage of the nominating rules in 1972, current or recent US Senators have run for President 66 times (my count excludes Senators who had become Vice Presidents and those who ran as “favorite sons” — i.e., as a convention tactic). The number who have been nominated? One, John Kerry. Number elected? Zero.

The US Senate is where Presidential aspirations go to die; the snowy fields of Iowa is where they often draw their final breath. People with twenty plus years of distinguished Senate service often figure that they are qualified to be President. Often they are smart enough about the issues and have built the right relationships – but they have also picked up some deadly habits. They require three sentences to say what their listeners communicate in one. They talk about legislation, not issues. They cite accomplishments that sound hopelessly technical (“..and as one of thirty-three co-sponsors of the Save American Agricultural Act, I fought for Iowa farmers when my colleagues were silent. That’s the kind of leadership I will bring to……). Voters are rarely impressed.

2008 will break this losing streak: both parties are likely to nominate Senators. But Barack, like Hillary, is a short termer who ran for the Senate in order to run for the Presidency. Neither appear to aspire to long Senate careers. And McCain, if he is smart, will run as a war hero, not a Senator. At his headquarters, he was introduced by Vietnam vets whose stories of McCain’s heroism made men weep. But McCain then wheeled out a trio of right-wing Senators to sing his praises and the room immediately became restless. He should leave his Senate colleagues in the audience.

The 2008 Iowa caucuses will be remembered as especially brutal, mainly because the remaining states have crowded their primaries ever closer to Iowa’s. As of sunset on January 3, six serious Democrats and six Republicans were competing to lead the free world. Democrats surfaced a remarkably strong field, even if five of the six are or were Senators: Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson. Republicans offered up Rudy Guiliani (who essentially skipped Iowa), Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson. This is not a fired up bunch, mainly because Republicans can count. They know that since World War II, any party that serves eight years gets replaced. The only exception was Bush I, who followed Reagan.
By midnight however, the world had changed. Twelve candidates are down to five – and three of them are in serious trouble. The remaining seven are either dead or mortally wounded. Casualties include:

John Edwards, who came in second in Iowa four years ago, did worse this time. In 02 he earned 32% in a four way race. This time he earned 30% of a three-way race. He will not recover. Like NY Governor Elliot Spitzer, Edwards has decided to play th self-righteous macho populist blasting “greedy corporations” and “the rich” for causing all of the world’s unpleasantness. He is learning the hard way that a confrontational, prosecutorial demeanor may win passion points but it does not win elections. Voters know that cartoons cannot govern. Edwards is unlikely to win in New Hampshire against Obama, so he will go into in his home state of South Carolina competing against Clinton – one of the best names in the state — and a black rock star. Knowing this, this donors – even labor donors – will demur. Edwards will not have the money he needs to continue an expensive and compressed primary schedule through this month. His political career ended last night, even though his supporters dream otherwise.

Mitt Romney. Dead man walking. His main accomplishment may be to have forced the party establishment to turn to John McCain. His strategy assumed a huge win in Iowa. He spent $40-$50 million dollars in the state and twisted his political positions to accommodate Western Iowa’s conservative evangelical Christians. But these folks voted for one of their own – a man who campaigned thematically not programmatically and whose victory speech last night could have been given by Barack Obama. Romney is not loved in New Hampshire, which shares media markets with Massachusetts, so Romney bleeds until Michigan – his home state and the place where folks over 50 remember his Dad, as a popular governor and CEO of American Motors (and a man not given to pretending he is something he is not). Anything but a powerful victory in Michigan means Romney is done. End of the road for a good man who ran a terrible race.

The demise of Mitt Romney illustrates an interesting phenomenon: successful business people often discover their blind spots when they seek public office. Romney is in the tradition of businesspeople who become governors in order to run for President: Virginia’s Mark Warner and (perhaps) George W. Bush are two others. Businesspeople tend to be problem-solvers. The best of them articulate their values and convictions to inspire employees and customers – think of Steve Jobs. Many have deep technical knowledge about their business – think Bill Gates at Microsoft or Eric Schmidt at Google.

But politics is more than problem-solving, as Hillary Clinton is learning. Voters want to know about your program, but in this election they clearly also want to know about you – your character, your vision, your family, your general view of the world. Voters want to know your plans, but in Iowa especially, they seem to want to know what sort of person you are so they can measure how you are likely to respond to the inevitable crises that come with the office.

Mike Huckabee. Dead man flying. The Huckster is a charming rogue and a brilliant communicator but he has nothing to communicate. There is not the slightest chance that Republicans will nominate another fevered theocrat, however much I might relish the campaign against one. Iowa Republicans are Jesus freaks – and I did not say Christians. Huckabee ran fifth among non-evangelicals: his candidacy is dead and gone to whatever little heaven or hell awaits departed campaigns.

Bill Richardson, Ron Paul, and Fred Thompson are also among the walking zombies. They will stagger into New Hampshire but will finish campaigning by the end of this month – and in most cases, well before. Of these, Richardson is easily the greatest loss. He is an extraordinary guy, having served as Governor of New Mexico, Clinton’s Energy Secretary, and US Ambassador to the United Nations. (Bill Clinton all but created Bill Richardson, appointing him to the UN twice and to Energy once. This makes rumors that Richardson will endorse Obama all the more galling to the Clintonistas).

Ron Paul is a Republican Texas Congressman who we visited yesterday at a Des Moines deli. The man is shriveled, sullen, and appears slightly demented. He is the darling of Internet libertarians – a large and generous constituency, as it turns out. He has almost no field organization and sports an aggressively sullen campaign demeanor. We had Paul to ourselves — it was clear that he had managed to spend several weeks walking around Iowa in the snow without leaving footprints.

Chris Dodd and Joe Biden are not waiting for New Hampshire: both men closed down their campaigns last night. The Iowa Democratic Caucus enforces a 15% viability threshold: if you do not receive 15% of the votes in any precinct-level caucus, your voters are told to go find another candidate or to vote undecided. In Precinct 87, which we visited as observers, neither Dodd, nor Biden, nor Richardson achieved viability so even though 40 or so voters, a few tearfully passionate, turned out for these candidates, Precinct 87 reported zero support for any of them.

Joe Biden closed down his third and probably final run for President with little to show for it. Chris Dodd spent $12 million in Iowa and put his kids in Des Moines schools only to wind up above an upscale Italian restaurant consoling his deservedly dispirited staff because his final tally in Iowa was zero. He did not survive the viability threshold in even one of Iowa’s 1,784 precincts. Failed campaigns are as sad as winning ones are thrilling – and Iowa unavoidably produces a lot of sad ones. Republican Duncan Hunter and Dems Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich don’t count. They were too weak and frankly too weird from the start to be politically relevant. Iowa efficiently dispatches cranks of this sort. Ron Paul would be in this group but for his Internet support.

It is interesting to rate the major candidates on three factors: their ability to describe their vision of politics, their ability to outline compelling political plans, and their ability to execute a complex campaign.

A compelling vision of politics, especially one that connects with the life story of the candidate, mattered enormously in this election. Mike Huckabee is brilliant at this, as is Barack Obama. John Edwards’ ability to bare his soul is a trademark honed before countless juries. Romney struggles stiffly to understand what the problem is here. McCain is lousy at this but he gets a pass because he is a war hero.

Plans obviously matter. All Democrats have plans — typically endlessly complex, expensive, and tailored o stimulate the erogenous zones of key constituencies. Edwards gives out an 80 page pamphlet full of bullet points. Clinton is nothing but plans. She tends to fall into her husband’s trademark rapid-fire recitation of wonkish ideas. Obama has them and can stick to the bullet points, which do not vary a lot from other Democrat plans — especially if you consider that Congress gets to play with these plans too. Romney has plans, although they evolve a great deal. McCain has plans because all Senators have plans. Only Huckabee has no plans – he is literally doing a wonk rodeo to try to round up some Christian experts to tell him what he thinks. I cannot wait to see this guy in a debate.

Execution is where the top guns excel: Romney, McCain, Clinton, and Obama have all raised real money. All have top-notch field organizations. All can do highly credible media.
Final score out of three:

Huckabee 1
Romney 1.5
Edwards 2
Clinton 2.5
Obama a perfect 3.

I’m not sure about McCain because I have seen too little of his operation. Note however that Intertrade (a market in political futures) currently gives Obama a two-thirds chance of becoming the nominee, Clinton a one-third chance, and everyone else effectively no chance. For Republicans, it is McCain 75%, Romney 25%, others zero…

We decided to observe the caucus at precinct 87 in Iowa, mainly because it was near our hotel. It turns out that the Iowa caucus, like caucus systems everywhere, are designed for inside party activists — normal folks need not apply. The process was chaotic, needlessly time-consuming, and run by the same precinct apparatchiks that had controlled affairs in this south Des Moines precinct for twenty years. It was democratic only in a town hall, 19th century sort of way: your vote is not secret; pressure to defect is continuous; open debate at the polling place is encouraged and rewarded, and anybody can arrive, register, and vote — which opens the process to all kinds of abuse.

Last night, many, perhaps most, attendees had never attended a caucus. Obama’s affinity group was young, fired up, and diverse; Hillary’s was older, more experienced, and slightly amazed at the Obama turnout,. There was no obvious tilt by women towards Hilary (indeed Obama polled better among women age 18-59 than Hillary and one of his better buttons declares “Hot Chicks Dig Obama”). At our caucus, Hillary and Obama started with a similar number of voters, but supporters of nonviable candidates moved to the Obama group (amid raucous cheers) in larger numbers. Hillary is a candidate with strong positives and strong negatives – she has more trouble than Obama competing for swing voters.
21st century technology intruded on this 19th century process: we knew the results while the voting was still underway. It became much easier to recruit Obama supporters after about 7:30, when the networks called the election for him. Thanks to the magic of Blackberries and cell phones, dozens of people knew immediately. Once we fired up a PC, we could look at detailed projections while our caucus voting was still underway (we could very likely have found projections for our own caucus still in process if 87 was one of the precincts that the networks polled. Because the networks did entrance polling, not exit polling and because caucuses, unlike polling places, have no closing time, the networks ignored their normal restrictions on reporting while voting is still in process.

If everything had worked smoothly, caucuses would have convened at 6:30, shut their doors and counted total attendees at 7:00 sharp as ours did, conducted a 30 minute scrum during which everybody could try to persuade everybody else to join their group, blow a whistle after 30 minutes, run a tally to eliminate non-viable groups, then conduct another 30 minute scrum before taking a final tally. A small and efficiently run caucus might get that all done by 8:00pm. Ours was chaotic, in part because it was 50% larger than any ever held. It ran until after 9:30.

We left and waited for Obama at a fired up victory bash, swaying to loud rock music and a kid’s drum band that marched straight through the mob. We looked up to see Hillary giving her speech. We could not hear her words over the din, but the visuals told the tale. We saw a tight-lipped Bill Clinton, a symbol of 1992 and clearly not happy with third place in what could become a referendum on his legacy. We saw Madeleine Albright, a symbol of 1997 and a botched Rwanda policy. We saw AFSCME signs everywhere – a symbol of interest group and identity politics. It looked old and it was old. It looked like the past and it looked like business as usual – it did not look like change.

Within minutes I was listening to a breathtaking, pitch-perfect speech – a fine mix of inspiring oratory and programmatic thinking. I was looking at a beautiful family and picturing them in the White House. I felt better about my country than I had felt in a very long time.

I generally react badly to being manhandled, but when two Secret Service agents suddenly frisked me from behind, I actually smiled and thanked them before I leaned forward, shook Michelle and Obama’s hands and exchanged a few words of congratulations. I looked at Jamie, who was all eyes, and realized that I had been exactly his age when a Palestinian with a pistol murdered my first political hero not far from my house at a rally just like this one. Bobby Kennedy was celebrating his victory in the California primary.

January 3 was an amazing day to be in Des Moines. A black guy who not long ago was a complete unknown had just crushed Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in the Iowa caucuses. He had just given a remarkable, memorable speech to the nation and to New Hampshire, where he was bound with an outstanding, well-financed, and battle-tested organization. In American politics it simply does not get any better than this — and I was enjoying it with my 15 year old son, who had quickly become both conversant and very engaged in a few days of meetings with Presidential candidates..

Obama could blow it. But as of now, he has his opponents in a box and the Clinton and Edwards campaigns both know it. They do not have an answer to Barack Obama – and they are not going to find a lot of Democrats who want to stop this guy.

Hillary, a talented woman, has earned her positives as well as her nontrivial negatives, now either holds on to win New Hampshire and delivers “comeback kid — the sequel” or she presides over the collapse of one of the mightiest political legacies in America.

I don’t think she can pull it off — and as much as I respect her talents, a large part of me doesn’t want her to. The nomination and the election, which so recently was Hilary Clinton’s to lose, is slipping rapidly from her grasp.