Obama Has to Hope Cheers Equal Votes

The Washington Sketch analyzes one of Senator Barack Obama's final campaign events the day before the Iowa caucuses.Video by Akira Hakuta/washingtonpost.com
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 3, 2008

CORALVILLE, Iowa, Jan. 2

On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Barack Obama decided to start the polling early.

"How many people are first-time caucusgoers?" he asked a boisterous and youthful crowd of 1,400 overflowing from a hotel ballroom here near the University of Iowa.

Nearly two-thirds raised their hands.

"There've been a lot of discussions among the pundits lately, because they don't think you're gonna show up," the candidate teased.

Boos from the crowd.

"Are you gonna prove them wrong?" he asked. Big cheer. "I can't hear you!" Bigger cheer. "Are you gonna show up for caucus or not?" Biggest cheer.

But at the student sign-in table outside the ballroom -- "Be awesome: Caucus for Obama!!!" urged the handwritten sign -- the numbers gave less cause for enthusiasm. Eighty-one students signed a list proclaiming themselves uncertain about caucusing or ineligible to vote. And how many filled out cards promising to attend Thursday's caucuses? A grand total of -- drumroll, please -- nine.

On Thursday night, America will finally have an answer to the question: Is Obama another Howard Dean, or can he win the nomination? Like Dean, he has challenged the Democratic establishment with a coalition of students and political independents. His candidacy, like Dean's, will collapse if they don't show up.

It is, in other words, a battle between the passion and the machine, between Hillary Clinton's establishment support and the superior enthusiasm of Obama's supporters. The Republican contest here is almost identical: a fight between an establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, and an insurgent favored by evangelicals, Mike Huckabee.

History favors the establishment's machine over the insurgent's passion: Al Gore over Bill Bradley, John Kerry over Dean, George W. Bush over John McCain. In 2008, that would mean Clinton over Obama.

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