Independent Voters May Give Obama Edge in Iowa

The latest poll released by the Des Moines Register shows Barack Obama ahead of the pack. The powerful paper speaks with an authoritative voice that could lift Obama's campaign. Dean Reynolds reports. Video by
By Shailagh Murray and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

DES MOINES, Jan. 1 -- With two days before Iowans go to the polls, significant support for Sen. Barack Obama from political independents has put rival Democratic campaigns on edge, challenging the traditional model of the state's caucuses as a low-turnout exercise dominated by partisan insiders.

The senator from Illinois received a jolt of momentum late New Year's Eve, when the Des Moines Register's final Iowa poll showed him leading Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) by 32 percent to 25 percent, with former senator John Edwards (N.C.) at 24 percent. But just as striking were two findings that suggest Obama may be succeeding at one of the riskiest gambits of his Iowa campaign, an aggressive push to persuade non-Democrats to participate.

The survey found that more newcomers than regular participants could turn out on Thursday: Overall, 40 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers identified themselves as independents, the poll said, double the percentage from 2004, and 60 percent said they would be attending a caucus for the first time. Both groups preferred Obama.

As rival campaigns immediately challenged the makeup of the Register sample and a poll for CNN-Opinion Research came out showing the race a virtual tie between Clinton and Obama, the candidates spent the first day of the election year courting the shrinking number of uncommitted voters.

Chief Clinton strategist Mark Penn disputed the poll, calling the Register's turnout model "unprecedented" and "out of sync with other polling done in the race," including several recent surveys that showed a statistical dead heat. Edwards spokesman Eric Schultz called the Register model "at odds with history."

Even Obama's campaign was surprised by the large sample of independents, and aides cautioned that it could be overblown. "We're not modeling it that high," senior Obama strategist Steve Hildebrand said of the independent pool. "We love the numbers in the Register poll, but we know this is going to be very tight."

Only a small portion of Iowa's approximately 600,000 registered Democrats have historically shown up on caucus night. Four years ago, about 125,000 voters participated in Iowa's Democratic caucuses; 19 percent called themselves independents. But from the outset of this campaign, Obama's campaign has targeted independents as intensively as it has registered Democrats, bombarding them with phone calls, direct-mail pieces and personal visits.

Obama courts independents as well as Republicans in his stump speech, casting his appeal across party lines as a key to his electability in November. "We've got to reach out to them and invite them into the process of creating change," he said at a rally Tuesday in Des Moines.

All three Democratic front-runners are spending millions of dollars to increase the universe of caucusgoers. According to the Register poll all three are succeeding, with Obama, Clinton and Edwards drawing most of their support from first-timers. But if Obama can produce the large independent turnout that the poll anticipates, he will have transformed at least these Iowa caucuses from a conclave for party regulars to something much more like a typical primary, similar to the first-in-the-nation contest in New Hampshire on Jan. 8.

"The hurdle that we have is getting them to show up and re-register as Democrats, and we know that's not an easy thing for lots of people to do," Hildebrand said. "But people are pretty motivated." The big benefit of the Register poll, he added, is the message it sends to this group. "It shows that they're not alone," he said. "It shows that this is doable."

"It just might work," an energized Obama told a roaring crowd of around 1,000 here Tuesday morning. But he cautioned, "The polls look good, but understand this: The polls are not enough."

Geoff Barrick, who works for an auto parts factory in Marengo and described himself as the "guy everybody wants," offered evidence that there is something to the Obama boom. He voted for Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004, Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and independent Ross Perot in 1992. This year, he is leaning to Obama.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company