It has been a quite few days here in Iowa. No more phone calls from my new friends John and Joe and Hillary and Barack. No more invitations to dinners, rallies, concerts. No more bright and glossy objects in my mailbox. And, after a final frenzied night. . .silence. I feel so. . .used.
Anyway, having had a couple of days now to recover I thought I would share a few brief closing thoughts on the Iowa caucuses, both about the night itself and, well chewed-over though the results have been elsewhere, what it all might mean, based on what was on the minds of at least some Iowa caucus-goers.
First, for all the flack that the caucuses receive for some of the opaque oddities of the process, for me there is something truly inspiring about standing in a hall with my fellow Iowans and taking part as people stood — literally in the case of our precinct — and aligned themselves with different candidates and engaged in some intense political and policy discussions over the course of an evening.
Based on my own experience I can tell you that at least some Iowa caucus-goers make up their minds based on the issues: between the first and second counts I had an intense and lengthy discussion with one supporter of a non-viable candidate, walking her through the policy proposals of the candidate I was caucusing for (Obama) on issues as diverse as reproductive health and foreign assistance before I was able to win her over.
The overall effect of the caucus was, as one friend put it, “disorganized chaos” — massive voter registration lines and check in, the disarray of breaking into preference groups, and the disorder of the first count and realignment — but disorganized chaos of the best, most earnest and civic-minded sort.
The turnout, as has been reported elsewhere, was truly astonishing. It wasn’t just the students and young voters. In our precinct, at least, the turnout cut across all demographics. We were expecting about 500 people, and more than 760 showed up.
And the Obama wave, clear from the outset as people started to pour into the hall, was pretty incredible to watch, as well. It was evident that it was going to be a big Obama night from the get-go, even before caucus-goers broke into preference groups for the first count. Each campaign tried to steer its supporters to sit or gather together during the registration process and pre-caucusing “party business” part of the evening. And as more and more Obama supporters gathered on one side of the hall it became clear that Obama was gong to win the evening, and by a large margin. I think the general reaction, regardless of which candidate people supported, was a little bit of a sense of shock that the Obama campaign had actually managed to pull off what they had said they were going to do.
I know I was a little stunned, and I was part of the effort. And among Obama supporters coming to caucus there was a palpable sense of optimism — hope, if you will — and of transformational possibility. That excitement, in turn, helped draw others in — a unique function of the caucus system, and not necessarily a dynamic that can take hold in a primary vote, conducted individually and spread out across the day.
As the caucus went into its first count and the size of the Obama bloc became fully evident it also became clear that while Edwards had his supporters — many of whom were with him in 2004 — he had been unable to really grow his support much. The easiest way to sum up why is that for change voters — and most Iowa voters seemed to have been seeking change — Obama’s message of hopeful and inclusive change beat Edwards’ message of confrontation. In most other respects the Obama and Edwards supporters, at least where I was, were interchangeable.
On that issue, however, there was a world of difference. And it seemed fairly clear from discussions inside the hall that had Edwards not been in the race many of these people would have likely supported Obama.
And this gets to the other dynamic driving the caucuses: Hillary Clinton’s support, while solid, was inelastic. Her supporters were disciplined, well-organized, aggressive (to the point of trying to bend some of the agreed-on rules of our particular caucus) and extremely loyal to their candidate. But they were utterly unable to win over others to their cause.
In fact, when caucus-goers in my precinct realigned between the first and second counts both Edwards and Obama picked-up more than 50 supporters, each, from the non-viable candidates. (With Edwards gaining a few more because, for at least a few of the caucus-goers, an innate sense of fair play led some of the Richardson, Biden, Kucinich and Dodd people to support Edwards simply so that Edwards, whose total was still well short of Obama’s, would not be swept away.) By my tally Clinton’s total support actually went down by one person during realignment, although my wife thinks Clinton picked up one. Happily, because no official records of the count are kept — only the delegate tallies — no one can really contradict me with an official tally. And regardless, even if Clinton managed to gain one additional supporter during realignment — when Edwards and Obama each picked up more than 50, many who were previously supporting Biden, Dodd, and Richardson presumably at least in part because of “experience” — the overall point still stands.
In Iowa, at least, she may have a solid floor of support, but so too does she have a hard ceiling, and it is well less than fifty-percent of even the Democratic Party. If that dynamic holds true elsewhere — it’s a big if, and I am very hesitant to generalize from a small non-representative state like Iowa, especially one engaged in a somewhat non-representative process like the caucuses — it presents a real challenge to Senator Clinton in getting her campaign on track.
In Iowa Clinton’s campaign also foundered on the rocks of Obama and Edwards simply having managed to go the distance with her: Her assertion that she was the toughest Democrat and the only one able to take on the Republicans became increasingly less plausible in the days leading up to the caucuses simply by virtue of the fact that she was unable to take down either of her top two competitors. As one person put it to me on caucus night, “If she is our best fighter, and they managed to fight her to a draw, then I guess they must be pretty good fighters, too.” Again, if this view of electability and toughness takes hold elsewhere it deprives Clinton of one of the central arguments of her campaign.
Clinton’s efforts to undermine Obama on the experience question also came up short here because, in the eyes of many caucus-goers — or at least that somewhat smaller subset of those in my precinct who I was also able to talk to — there was a recognition that “enough” experience is a relative question and not an absolute one. Although no one, not even his supporters, argued that Obama had “the most” experience, he was seen as having at the least more than sufficient experience, both traditional and otherwise, to have cleared the experience bar. (Some argued that he has the “best” experience; but I’ll leave that for others to debate.)
That Clinton may have cleared the bar by more did not in the end really get her anything on the experience versus change argument. In some ways experience and change could be seen as a two-step process in the minds of Obama’s supporters, and if he would have been unable to clear the first (experience) bar in the eyes of many Iowa voters they never would have moved on to consider his message of charge: But he did, and so they did, too. Likewise, his message of viewing experience tempered by and in the context of the question of good judgment also seems to have sunk in here. Unless the Clinton campaign can effectively get traction on these issues, this interplay of experience and judgment may prove to be an important consideration elsewhere, too, and not just in Iowa.
(The same experience issue could be seen as upending Dodd and Biden here too, by the way. And perhaps there is something of a law of diminishing returns on service in the Senate: That you serve helps
gets you over the experienced enough to be president bar. But, all else being equal, that you serve for 2 years or 22 years perhaps makes less of a difference.)
Interestingly, and based on some of my in-hall discussions caucus night, one of the other factors that Iowa caucus-goers seem to be responding to in supporting Obama is a subtle but significant difference in the rhetorical strategies employed by Clinton and Obama.
And no, this has nothing to do with change versus experience. Rather, it is a “me-you” distinction, and appears to have to do with a sense that the Clinton operation frames the campaign as one where “your role is to help and support her in her efforts”, as it was put to me, whereas the Obama campaign seems to try to frame things up as” him helping you.”
And in fact you can see this difference in the post-caucus e-mails sent out to supporters by each campaign.
“We’ve got more work to do.” That was my first reaction as I saw last night’s election results come in. And today in New Hampshire, I’m pounding the pavement, looking for every last vote in next Tuesday’s primary.
With your help, we can make it clear that the Democratic Party needs a nominee who can go the distance in a long, challenging campaign to win the White House, and that the American people need a president who can be an effective champion for them on day one.
Iowa sounded the opening bell of this campaign. New Hampshire is only four days away — and the pace only quickens from there.
The stakes couldn’t be any higher. Events couldn’t be moving any faster. With everything on the line, let’s show them what we’re made of.
[Please contribute now.]
You and I know just what to do at times like this. Work harder than everyone else and rely on each other every step of the way. If we do that, I know we’ll win.
You’ve already done so much. But today, I’m turning to you to help fund crucial activities in New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and beyond.
[Make a contribution today to help me win.]
We’re not just working to prevail over other candidates in a hard-fought contest for the Democratic nomination. This is about more than that. It’s about our unyielding determination to reclaim our country from an administration that has failed us, betrayed our trust, and undermined our values.
That’s why these next few days matter so much. I’m doing everything I can to drive our campaign to victory and I know you will do the same.
With your help, we can win. [Make a contribution now.]
Let’s keep working to change America.
All the best,
Hillary Rodham Clinton
You did it.
Not just yesterday but every day for ten months, you did what the cynics said we could not do.
You said the time has come to move beyond the pettiness and anger that have consumed Washington, and you sent a powerful message that change is coming to America.
I’ve landed in New Hampshire, where four days from now, we’ll have the chance to build on the momentum you sparked here yesterday.
But I want you to know that — wherever this improbable journey takes us — it started in Iowa. Years from now, you’ll look back and you’ll say that this was the moment — this was the place — where America remembered what it means to hope.
I’m thankful to you, and I always will be.
Now I’ll admit that these are not two exactly analogous notes: The two campaigns were in very different situations after the caucuses, and I imagine an Obama letter had he finished second or third would have been different from that he sent as a winner — and that likewise a victory message from Clinton would have struck a different tone, too.
Nonetheless, I’d hazard — and this might be a hazard, as I will admit I have not done the hard work of the assertion to follow — that a more systematic coding of their speeches and statements and letters would reveal a similar, and reveling, pattern, and may explain at least some of the appeal of the Obama phenomenon.
We all understand that just because Iowa has voted — er, caucused — the race is far from over. Iowa traditionally does a pretty good job sorting — and I’d say having lived through this cycle that on balance, even with its defects, the Iowa caucus system is a pretty good sorter — but a less good job picking. And who knows if any of the factors that weighed on the minds of Iowa voters will matter in Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada and elsewhere.
So that’s it from Iowa. Or Idaho. Or Ohio. Or however it is that we will be referred to for the next few years, until, like four-year cicadas, the campaigns emerge from the ground for the next cycle. . .
— Michael Schiffer
Michael Schiffer is The Washington Note’s blogger for the Iowa Caucus and early primaries and is a resident of Iowa. He is a program officer in Policy Analysis and Dialogue at the Stanley Foundation based in Muscatine, Iowa — and was previously senior national security adviser and legislative director in the Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)