Des Moines -- Barack Obama's decisive victory in the Iowa Caucus is probably even larger than most people realize.
In a battery of national polls -- often inaccurate but relentlessly pitched as self-fulfilling media predictions -- Clinton led by an average of 21 points just last week. As the Clinton Campaign used to emphasize, she also led in December polls from every upcoming primary state, from Iowa to Nevada. She spent about $7 million on over 8,000 television ads in Iowa, plus at least another $10 million on outreach in the state, and stood on the shoulders of Democratic giants, from President Clinton to Michael Whouley to a sizable chunk of the liberal policy establishment. Something else is at work here: a strong Democratic field with several compelling candidates; a sense that this is a rare and epic intramural battle that can set the party's course; and, apparently, a hunger for an Obama candidacy that is as adamant about transcending Bush Republicanism as it is about vanquishing Clintonian politics.
Barack Obama battled an expectations game stacked against all challengers; a metric of experience discounting work beyond Washington; and an unknowable question about the relevance of his skin color, swirling around his candidacy alone. Last night, Iowans did not simply accept Obama's masterful ability to clear those hurdles, they rushed to support him in an unprecedented coalition within record-breaking turnout. Over half of Democratic attendees were first-time caucus goers. Obama tapped the largest share of the new participants, who compromised 41 percent of his support. Youth turnout jumped 5 percent from 2004, thanks to Obama, who drew a whopping 57 percent of voters under 30. (Edwards and Clinton netted 13 and 11 percent, respectively.) Obama won more support from women voters than Clinton, by five percent. And he bested Clinton and Edwards by a solid 7 percent – roughly 25 percent of their totals.
Republicans saw 108,000 people caucus last night, while the Democrats drew a record-breaking 239,000 caucus attendees -- a gain of 115,000 from 2004. In today's New York Times, Adam Nagourney depicts the Democrats' "huge turn-out" as a demonstration of "the extent to which opposition to President Bush has energized Democrats." Not quite. Bush was easily as big an energizer in 2004, when he was actually on the ballot and Democrats were eager to battle an incumbent who had never even won the popular vote.