Report from Iowa:
It's About Empowerment, not Entitlement
by Hans Johnson
How quickly the landscape can change.
Contributing Editor, In These Times
President, Progressive Victory
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
the nation as in our Iowa City gymnasium tonight—a
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 placard—and
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.