I knew there was something afoot for Barack Obama about half an hour into the caucus I attended at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa. First of all, there was the turnout. Democratic Precinct 72 had roughly 25 attendees in the 2004 caucus, according to precinct chair Louise Alcorn. Today, it had 58. And even though the caucus represented a union-heavy neighborhood, which one might expect to turn out for John Edwards, the first count of the night identified 24 Obama supporters, 16 Edwards supporters, and just 12 Hillary Clinton supporters. The caucus also included one Biden supporter, four Richardson supporters, and one undecided voter, all of whom later spread evenly to the larger groups.
The relatively small precinct only had two delegates to give, so the Clinton, Obama, and Edwards groups all tried convincing each other that they ought to switch camps. Though the Edwards supporters in attendance were well-prepared (they had pies and candy available for converts) and committed (they gave passionate speeches advocating for Edwards), the Obama supporters sat steadfast and quiet. After some heated moments, including a long discussion of whether Elizabeth Edwards' cancer necessarily meant she would die while her husband was in office, the final count showed that Obama had actually grown in strength. Obama 25, Edwards 22, and Clinton 11—Obama and Edwards each took home one of the precinct's two delegates.
By the time the caucus wrapped, it was becoming clear that Thursday was Obama's night. Anecdotal reports suggested that turnout was way up—the eventual turnout number would shatter all records—a fact that favored Obama significantly because it meant first-time caucus-goers, independents, and young voters were turning out big time. Indeed, young voters in particular might be the story of the Iowa caucuses: notoriously hesitant to participate, they composed over 50 percent of Obama's support. News reports even indicated that Obama had beaten Clinton among women.
The final results—Obama 38 percent, Edwards 30 percent, Clinton 29 percent—suggested that Iowans had responded to Obama's call for decreased partisanship and a renewed politics that left special interests and lobbyists behind. In fact, they had answered it so fervently, and in such large numbers, that they had bested the best political machine in politics by nine points. In his victory speech at the Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines, where supporters hugged, cried, and hooted randomly, a grinning Obama struck almost grandiose tones.