By Chris Cillizza
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008 10:12 PM
Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has won the Iowa caucuses while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) seemed headed for a third-place finish, a stunning affirmation of his message of hope and a stinging rebuke of the long-time national frontrunner.
Clinton called Obama to congratulate him on his victory and to concede the race moments ago. With nearly 1,600 of the state's 1,781 precincts reporting their results, Obama led with 37 percent followed by former senator John Edwards with 30 percent of the vote and Clinton with 29 percent.
The Iowa Democratic party estimated that turnout would top 212,000, a projections based on 91.5 percent of the precincts currently reporting. In 2004, roughly 125,000 Democrats participated in the caucuses, and four years before that 59,000 Democrats turned out.
Obama's win sends a shockwave through the Democratic field as a candidate who was elected to the Senate from Illinois just two years ago has toppled the first family of Democratic politics. Clinton's apparent inability to beat out Edwards is likely to send warning signals throughout her campaign. The former First Lady now almost certainly needs a win in New Hampshire to reassert her status as the likely nominee.
In the runup to tonight's vote, the candidates did some light campaigning and quickly hunkered down to await the results of the caucuses.
Clinton gave a series of television interviews before dining at an Italian restaurant with her husband, former president Bill Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea. Edwards stopped by his Cedar Rapids headquarters this afternoon to thank supporters and urge them to turn out tonight. Obama's campaign touted a caucus day endorsement from Chad Scott, a morning show radio host in north-central Iowa.
The flurry of activity served as the runup to the final act in a captivating political drama that has played out across the cities and plains of Iowa over the past year.
Despite the compression of the nominating calendar -- 31 states will vote on or before Feb. 5 -- the candidates have lavished countless days and tens of millions of dollars on their Iowa campaigns, believing that a win tonight would catapult them to the nomination.
The caucuses, which kicked off the presidential selection process since the mid-1970s, begam at 8 p.m. Eastern time as voters endured chilly temperatures -- 8 degrees at caucus time in Des Moines -- and missed a televised Bowl Championsip Series football game (Virginia Tech vs. Kansas) to gather at the 1,781 precinct caucuses around the state.
A win in Iowa ensured the victors a surge of momentum with just five days before the New Hampshire primary -- the shortest time between the two events in modern history.
An Obama win could well trigger a nationwide movement that could overwhelm the establishment support of Clinton. On the Republican side, Huckabee's victory validated his unorthodox campaign strategy and made him a real player heading into New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina.
Polling on the eve of the caucus vote reflected the uncertainty felt by the candidates, activists and journalists covering the contest. The Des Moines Register poll released on New Year's Eve showed Obama leading the Democratic field and Huckabee atop the Republican race. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey that came out the following day, however, showed Clinton and Romney ahead.
Unlike a primary, where a voter casts a single, secret ballot, caucuses function more as town meetings with dozens, and sometimes hundreds of people, gathered in living rooms, school multipurpose rooms and church halls across the state.
Republicans gather in preference groups by candidate, are counted and then are dimissed. The Democratic caucus is far more complicated. Voters gather in preference groups, too. But after the inital sorting, those whose candidate does not meet a threshold of viability -- typically 15 percent -- can shift support to a candidate who does.
Given that uncertainty, rumors flew on caucus day as each campaign sought to gain even the slightest advantage.
Sources suggested that a deal was in the works between Obama and Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) that allegedly would deliver voters who chose Biden on the first ballot to Obama on the second. Under Iowa Democratic caucus rules, supporters of any candidate who do not constitute at least15 percent of the total number of people in their precinct must reorganize and make a second-choice pick.
Biden rejected the idea outright in a statement released by his campaign in the early afternoon. "There are no discussions underway and there will be no deal with any campaign," said Iowa state director Danny O'Brien. "We believe Sen. Biden is strong enough on his own."
There was also considerable speculation about what second-tier candidates would do if they finish out of the money tonight.
The Politico reported this morning that former senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) would likely drop from the race if he fared poorly tonight. Thompson seemed to leave the door wide open to that possibility in an interview earlier today, telling NBC's Tim Russert: "At the end of everything tonight, things are going to look differently for all of us... We've got to recognize the signals that we are being given and respond accordingly."
Thompson communications director Todd Harris, however, issued a denial that any decision about the candidate's future in the race had been made. "We have no plans to give up Fred's fight for conservative change and every intention to keep this campaign going onward to victory," he said in an interview.
During an interview with the Fox News Channel, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) seemed to hint that he would reconsider his candidacy if he finished below fourth place tonight. "People should be cautious about inferring too much," said Dodd spokesman Hari Sevugan.
Putting aside that sort of scuttlebutt, the real focus of the day for the top-tier candidates is ensuring that their much bally-hooed turnout operations were up and ready for this evening.
All three leading Democrats -- Clinton, Obama and Edwards -- as well as Romney have poured millions of dollars into identifying their supporters and putting in place a system that will ensure a strong turnout at their precinct tonight. Romney's Iowa staff began an all-day call-a-thon at 9 a.m. to do just that. Clinton has recruited nearly 5,000 volunteers to drive those who can't drive themselves to their caucus sites.
EMILY's List, a Washington-based group that supports pro-abortion rights Democratic women, released a memo just hours before the caucus touting its groundwork for Clinton's campaign.
"Tonight marks the culmination of an intensive six-week effort to mobilize Democratic women to participate in the Iowa caucuses," wrote Maren Hesla, an EMILY's List operative, in the memo. Hesla details eight different direct mail pieces and seven automated phone calls to a universe of 60,000 Iowa women who had voted in the 2006 midterm elections but had not participated in the 2004 caucuses -- a campaign that cost the group $500,000.
Turnout estimates were all over the place prior to the caucuses. Republicans expected far fewer attendees at their caucuses than the Democrats; eight years ago, roughly 87,000 people gave then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush a 10-point victory over magazine publisher Steve Forbes. A similar -- or slightly lower -- turnout -- is expected tonight.
While the turnout operations were front and center today, massive spending on television ads laid the groundwork in the state for each of these campaigns. In the last month alone, according to Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, $17 million has been spent on more than 20,000 political advertisements. Estimates of total spending for the race are in the neighborhood of $50 million.
For Democrats, that advertising has been entirely positive as none of the major -- or minor -- candidates has attacked any of the others via the airwaves. The concern, exacerbated with three candidates seen as potential winners, is the rebound effect. "In a tight multi-candidate primary, the overriding concern is the ricochet," said Democratic consultant Erik Smith who is unaffiliated in this race. "Each candidate needs to make their strongest possible closing argument, and there is no appetite for the potential unintended consequences of a negative ad this late in a competitive race."
The same has not held true on the Republican side, as Romney has been attacking Huckabee over past stances on hot-button issues such as crime, illegal immigration and government spending for much of the past few weeks.
Huckabee seemed poised to fight back earlier this week, but the former Arkansas governor scrapped a planned neagtive ad campaign despite the fact that he had gathered dozens of reporters to a Des Moines hotel to view the spot. (He showed it anyway.)
Recent history suggests that Iowa voters react negatively to negative attacks. In 2004, former governor Howard Dean (Vt.) and then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) savaged one another on television, only to watch Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and Edwards shoot the gap to claim first and second place.
History also suggest that the winner of tonight's caucuses will be well positioned to wind up as the party's nominee. Of the eight contested Iowa Democratic caucuses since 1972, the winner has gone on to win the nomination five times. The same holds true for Republicans as the winner of three out of the five contested caucuses has become the eventual nominee.