Proving the pundits wrong in the Hawkeye state

It was a cold but clear Monday night in Burlington, Iowa as Democratic voters in that city's 10th precinct gathered in the Burlington High School library to caucus. The high school's parking lot was packed and it appeared there may be an amazing turnout for this contentious presidential caucus. That was not the case; both the boys and girls varsity basketball teams had games scheduled that night. One solitary campaign worker braved the cold and stood outside holding a Howard Dean sign. He directed caucus goers to the library.

Within the library, each candidate's camp had staked our an area for their supporters to congregate. Jeff Heland, the precinct committeeman and, coincidently, the Des Moines County Democratic party chair stood at a table near the center of the room assisting his wife who signed voters in. To participate in the caucus you had to live in the precinct. Registered Democratic voters just signed one form. Others could vote if they filled out forms that evening either changing parties or registering to vote and declaring a party affiliation. Heland and his wife had printouts listing all the registered voters and Democrats in the 10th precinct and only about a dozen people completed the paperwork necessary to become a new voter or declare a new party affiliation.

Arriving at about 6:15pm for a caucus set to begin at 6:30pm, it quickly became apparent that something was amiss. The popular sentiment had been that Howard Dean was the favorite, largely due to his impressive field organization. In fact, Dean's own website boasted of over 3,500 out-of-state volunteers converging in Iowa to assist the effort. Therefore it was surprising to see only a small group in the Dean section while the two Johns (Edwards and Kerry) each had groups twice the size of the Dean bunch. Despite the national attention directed at the Iowa caucuses, little discussion of politics took place as voters waited to participate. Most caucus attendees spent the time visiting with their neighbors as if it were a church social.

Sitting amidst the Kerry group was Lucille Phillips, a woman of experience and an Iowan for 30 years who was attending her very first caucus. "I thought I should participate in at least one of these caucuses during my lifetime and I guess this is the year. After studying the candidates I am convinced that John Kerry would be the best man to beat Bush next fall." Lois, a friend of Lucille's sitting next to her was more pragmatic and direct, "More than anything else I hope I can help prevent Gephardt from getting this nomination." By the end of the evening it would be clear that Lois got her wish.

The Edwards camp was arguably the best organized within this precinct. Not unlike the Dean campaign, the Edwards folks had recruited hundreds of dedicated followers from elsewhere to assist the Iowa process and the young lady acting as the Edwards captain worked hard to keep her flock together while simultaneously working to lure others to join. She herself did not count in the final Edwards tally because she was not from the precinct but her actions Monday night provide a valuable clue as to how the Edwards campaign could come from obscurity to rank second while the Dean organization fizzled when it counted.

Edwards supporters all sounded like they had memorized a script from one of his television commercials. They praised Edwards for remaining above the attack ad fray and presenting a positive message. "He seems like the most genuine and honest of the candidates," explained Karen. First time caucus participant and local community college employee, Mary, said she was initially attracted to a number of candidates who opposed the war but settled on Edwards "...because of his solid support for education. Here in Iowa we have always been able to boast about our schools but with all the recent budget cuts in education I'm afraid of what will happen, especially with our colleges." Some other Edwards supporters pointed to his "College for Everyone" plan that allows students to earn money for college tuition through community service as well as his promise of health coverage for all Americans.

No group was more of a single mind in their reasons for supporting a candidate than the Gephardt folks. Everyone I spoke to offered the exact same primary reason for supporting the longtime Missouri congressman, jobs. "There is no more important issue this election year than creating good jobs," said one voter who did want to be identified. "Nobody I know is better off since Bush got into office and lots of people are far worse. We need good jobs now and the ability to promise more than multiple minimum wage jobs for our kids tomorrow." Closely related to the jobs issue is Gephardt's opposition to NAFTA and this was a repeated theme of the Gephardt supporters. First-time caucus goer Lee added that one thing really cinched her support for Gephardt, "He's one of us, he's not a silver spoon man makin' out like he understands what it means to decide between which bills to pay when. Too many of our politicians are out of touch with the day-to-day problems real people face, but not Dick."

As 6:30 arrived, Heland called the meeting to order and announced that the first order of business would be to determine the total number of eligible caucus participants. At first, Heland walked around the room having participants count off for almost 20 minutes. At the end of this time, not surprisingly his count did not match his wife's tally. Discussion ensued and eventually Heland conducted a roll call that finally determined that 81 voters were present and could participate.

According to Iowa caucus rules, each candidate must meet a threshold of 15 percent or more of the voters present to be considered "viable" and eligible to send delegates to the county convention. Any candidate in this caucus with less that 13 voters was hence deemed "non-viable" and the next step in the evening's process was for members of each candidate's groups to begin trying to lure more voters to their man. At the end of the evening, the nine available delegates to the Des Moines county democratic convention would be apportioned to each remaining viable candidate.

Immediately following the initial count, Dick Gephardt had 23 voters, John Kerry 21, John Edwards 18, Howard Dean 11, Dennis Kucinich 6 and Joe Lieberman 2. Lieberman and Kucinich were clearly non-viable while the Dean group needed to win over two voters to meet the threshold. In a not-so-secret political deal hatched earlier between the national campaigns of Edwards and Kucinich, both campaigns had promised that their caucus-goers would merge with the other's group in the event either was not viable.

Each candidate had a precinct captain and Anita Rheinschmidt was Dean's. She was clearly surprised and disappointed in the turnout. "They gave me a list of 30 Dean supporters that were confirmed to be attending tonight's caucus in this precinct but here I sit with only 11 and six of those weren't on the list!" The sobering realization of their plight seemed to suck any energy out of the Dean group. Rather than make more than a cursory effort to lure a couple of Kucinich supporters over, these folks spent their time selecting a new candidate to support. Rheinschmidt took off her yellow "Dean Precinct Captain" T-Shirt and went over to the Edwards group. The others wound up splitting pretty evenly between Edwards, Gephardt and Kerry.

The two Lieberman supporters were a middle-aged couple, Bob and Mary Ann, who both voted Republican four years ago "...and may end up doing so again" according to Bob. They knew at the outset that not only was their's a lost cause but also who they would throw their support to, if asked nicely. "We'll move over to the Gephardt camp if someone would just ask us." Eventually that was exactly what happened and once moved Bob worked hard to lure some of the Dean folks into his new camp.

The Kucinich supporters didn't feel obligated by the national agreement and went their own ways. One went to Kerry, three to Edwards and two joined the Gephardt group. In the end Edwards, Kerry and Gephardt each had approximately a third of the caucus participants and the nine delegates were apportioned evenly, three to each. The delegates from each precinct will conduct an essentially similar process at the county level and county delegates will be sent to the Congressional District and then the Iowa Democratic state convention where delegates to the national convention are eventually determined. However, by that point in time, few outside of Iowa will care much about the distribution of Iowa delegates.

Leaving the high school and heading back toward Galesburg we listened to radio reports from across Iowa. It soon became clear that what we witnessed was hardly an aberration in terms of a struggling Dean campaign. New Hampshire is now a make-or-break situation for the former Vermont governor. Meanwhile, Gephardt was finished and he made that official during a press conference Tuesday morning where he announced that he was not only closing down his presidential campaign but retiring from Congress as well.

Kerry takes this big and totally unexpected win into New Hampshire where he has as much claim to favorite-son status as Dean but where he must now contend with retired General Wesley Clark and a still-frontrunning Dean. The Edwards folks were hoping to make a showing in Iowa and New Hampshire before winning the South Carolina primary but now find themselves in much stronger position than anyone dared hope. Kucinich never got started and is hanging on to see if his deal with Edwards will pay off. I can't envision a scenario where Lieberman remains in the race after New Hampshire.