Report from Iowa:
It's About Empowerment, not Entitlement

by Hans Johnson
Contributing Editor, In These Times
President, Progressive Victory

How quickly the landscape can change.

At the caucus I observed in Iowa City, where my sister votes, the turnout was overwhelming. It overflowed the elementary gymnasium into the hallways and surpassed the '04 attendance by a whopping 33 percent. [The math was easy: 720 tonight versus 540 last time.] Portent of the statewide results came early when the county chair asked first-time caucus-goers to raise their hands: Fully one third of the participants eagerly shot up their arms, to the applause of the veteran voters, some in their 80s. That youthful turnout included at least one veteran returned from duty in Asia, who joined the Edwards contingent.

As soon as the serious counting began, one fact was clear: Clinton supporters, needing 108 people to qualify for delegates under the 15-percent viability rule that governs the Democratic caucus, didn't cross that threshold in the first tally, numbering only 73. Obama and Edwards backers seemed to surprise themselves in abundance, reaching over 300 and 160, respectively, as their sub-caucus counts took place.

Dodd, Kucinich, Richardson, and Biden also didn't reach viability at the Iowa City precinct caucus I observed. [At the national level, the last two remain in the race, at least for now.] To engage the backers of all these candidates
in the nation as in our Iowa City gymnasium tonighta challenge faces the leading candidates' supporters: articulating the issues that concern the trailing or dropout candidates' backers in order to win them over. At our caucus, discussion ensued on the candidates' stand on universal health care, restoring limits on assault weapons, subsidizing nutrition and school lunches, stopping anti-gay amendments to state constitutions, strengthening workplace safety, and the freedom to form and maintain unions. That Edwards embraces labor, demands full repeal of the antigay federal Defense of Marriage Act, and led in denouncing attacks on gays as immoral by the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was a selling point for a few LGBT-rights supporters in the crowd.

At the second count, a plurality of Dodd and many Kucinich backers came over to Edwards, along with a handful of Clinton and undecided voters, adding 95 total. Obama gained about 60, from every non-viable cluster. Hillary gained from newly liberated Biden and Richardson supporters, expanding by a net of 37 for the second count; this was just 2 people more than the threshold to get delegates. At least at the caucus I observed, in progressive Johnson County (where else would my sister live!), the evening was very nearly even more disappointing for the Clinton campaign than the statewide outcome.

The Clinton backers I saw deserve credit for hanging in after the first dispiriting count to gather supporters in order to attain viability.

The Obama campaign deserves great credit for ushering in young people and new caucus-goers into the democratic process and inspiring Democratic and independent voters in Iowa. Even David Yepsen, the caucus expert and Des Moines Register columnist who earlier scolded Obama's state campaign for uncritically urging college students to vote in the caucus (raising the specter of out-of-state registrants biasing in-state outcomes) on Thursday night praised the magnetism and turnout machine of the victor.

And the Edwards campaign deserves credit for running an intrepid, issue-based campaign that broke through commentary and political coverage inordinately focused on his two competitors. Combining a powerful progressive message with a crossover appeal to moderates and Republicans
one Edwards backer tonight, for instance, admiringly clutched a Giuliani placardand an explicit message about enlarging the Democratic coalition and Congressional majority paid dividends in Iowa. Boosted by a strong performance in the heartland, that drive advances.

Iowa voters sent three powerful messages tonight: We want change. We're willing to turn out on a winter night, in unprecedented numbers and at places we may not even usually go to cast our ballots, to stand up for it. And we want leadership that initiates change not with a tone of entitlement, but with a message of empowerment.

Change is a fact of the race, as well as its theme. In Iowa, the surreal experience of seeing candidates' TV ads (Biden and Dodd) after the standard-bearers have reportedly pulled the plug on their bids simply underscores how fluid this field has become.

The '08 Democratic race has taken a turn. It leaves Iowa and refocuses on the substance of the progressive push for change. The candidates who adapt, who continue to communicate with and woo the non-aligned, and who empower their supporters through words and campaign mechanics, will as Hubert Humphrey said, win and deserve to win in the contests ahead.