Much to the enjoyment of Oracle critics, my crystal ball was wrong about Iowa. From my personal perspective, I was delighted to have been wrong, because predicted winners Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney would have both been (and may yet be) bad for the nation. But I still need to figure out what happened that was different than I expected.
What I had predicted – that the turnout machines of Clinton and Romney would succeed in getting their reliably motivated people to the caucus – did in fact occur as predicted. It also appears that most of the Democrats hoping to cash in on presidential patronage and influence showed up to be seen and appreciated in Hillary’s caucus. But what also happened, and changed everything, was the success of the seemingly less professional campaigns of Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee in drawing their inspired followers to caucus in record numbers. (John Edwards’ relative success vs. Hillary was less of a surprise, because his labor backers know how to turn their people out.) Ordinary people came in and outnumbered The Establishment.
The night’s biggest story was Obama. Whether it was his message, his manner or his Oprah-electrification, he inspired his followers to overcome the obstacles that had kept most of his voters from ever participating before in Iowa caucuses. Remember, a caucus system is specifically set up to favor insiders and discourage participation by ordinary folks. Unlike a 12-14 hour primary election, the caucus took place at a specific time in the evening, when many young adults had to work, many elderly citizens had to overcome night-vision problems and other fears of going out after dark, single parents had to find baby-sitters, and even two-parent families needed to leave one of them home to care for the kids. Most participants had to travel farther to get there, because there were a lot fewer caucus sites than polling places for an election. There were no absentee ballots for those out-of-town or physically disabled. And the Democratic Party, the one-time champion of the common person, imposed a complicated “viability” procedure that effectively required participants to devote their entire evening to the event in order to be counted, further complicating efforts by those needing to juggle work schedules or rely on babysitters. Even with record turnouts for both parties, over 80% of registered Iowa voters stayed away from the caucus sites. Can you say “disenfranchised”?
Obama’s supporters were largely first-time participants, the very people that the system was designed to discourage. His success in the face of those odds is as remarkable as it is encouraging.
Huckabee’s success proved that the death of evangelical influence in the Republican Party was, in Mark Twain’s famous words, premature and greatly exaggerated. The turnout machine on which Romney spent millions was outperformed by what networks of mostly evangelicals did for Huckabee for free.
The Republican results also demonstrated that Huckabee’s message of economic populism is welcome in the Republican Party. Spinners have been trying to portray the Iowa results as evangelicals blindly rallying behind one of their own while being blissfully unaware of Huckabee’s record and rhetoric that was uncomfortably progressive to establishment Republicans. But Iowa Republicans weren’t at all ignorant of that. The Romney campaign spent lavishly on making sure that they knew about Huckabee’s record on crime, immigration and social justice, his criticism of President Bush’s foreign policy, and the opposition to Huckabee’s candidacy by establishment neo-cons like the Club for Growth. The evangelical movement showed signs of maturing, by embracing a candidate who stood not only for opposition to abortion and gay rights, but also for economic compassion and concern over Bush’s arrogant foreign policy. While Bush had campaigned about a phony “compassionate conservatism” that never materialized in his administration, Huckabee’s seems to be the real deal. Huckabee’s supporters knew about that much better than anywhere else in the country. And they demonstrated that they like it.
It was also heartening to see Huckabee win in spite of his lack of funding. While Obama also beat The Establishment, he had plenty of money to make it happen.
Another upshot from Iowa was, for the most part, more reliable polling results. The impediments to turnout mentioned above had led both me and professionals like Rasmussen Reports
to discount most of the polls. But the final Des Moines Register
poll was right on the money in both the Democratic
contests. “Matt” commented on my blog post the day before the caucus, “[T]he Register
doesn't have the best respected poll for nothing. They uniquely know what is happening on the ground.” I don’t know what intrusions on personal privacy the Register
employed to figure out who to count, but they did it right.