By Dan Balz, Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 4, 2008
DES MOINES, Jan. 3 -- Sen. Barack Obama, riding a message of hope and change and buoyed by extraordinary turnout, decisively won the Iowa Democratic caucuses Thursday night, dealing a significant setback to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the battle for the party's 2008 presidential nomination.
With all of the state's 1,781 precincts reporting, Obama (Ill.) won 38 percent of the delegates being awarded in the competition. Clinton (N.Y.) took 29.5 percent to run third behind former senator John Edwards (N.C.), who drew 29.8 percent.
Obama's victory came after the longest, costliest and most intensely fought campaign in the history of the Iowa caucuses. The year-long competition produced a huge turnout that temporarily swamped some precincts and reflected the energy and enthusiasm among Democratic voters determined to recapture the White House in November.
Party officials said turnout exceeded 239,000, far above the 124,000 who participated four years ago and eclipsing even the campaigns' most optimistic forecasts.
Obama's victory was the latest chapter in a remarkable political story. A neophyte on the national stage whose inspirational message first captured the imagination of Democrats at the party's 2004 national convention, Obama has passed the initial test against one of the most popular names in the Democratic Party.
Seeking to become the first African American president, he found a receptive audience nationally for his candidacy almost from the moment he announced last winter, and he proved his mettle in this largely white and rural state.
He addressed a raucous rally of his supporters shortly after 10 p.m. Central time, walking onstage with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters to roaring cheers. He waved to the crowd and declared his victory "a defining moment in history."
"They said this day would never come," he said. "They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided -- too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose." He continued, "We are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come." One day, he said, the American people will look back on the 2008 Iowa caucuses and say, "This is the moment when it all began."
But Obama asked Iowa for more, even as supporters filed into the downtown arena to celebrate. They were handed slips of paper reading "great work in Iowa," and announcing that three Obama offices in the state will remain open through Feb. 5, for volunteers to work phone banks aimed at primaries in other states.
Clinton spoke to supporters shortly before Obama appeared. With her husband, former president Bill Clinton, at her side, she offered congratulations to her rivals and vowed a vigorous campaign, starting in New Hampshire on Tuesday, targeting Obama's readiness to be president.
"What is most important now is that, as we go on with this contest, that we keep focused on the two big issues, that we answer correctly the questions that each of us has posed. How will we win in November 2008 by nominating a candidate that will be able to go the distance? And who will be the best president on Day One? I am ready for that contest."
Four other Democratic candidates -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) -- barely registered once the delegates were allocated. All were in the low single digits.
After the results came in, Biden, who had hoped his foreign policy expertise would give him a chance to be competitive, and Dodd, who had moved his family to Iowa for the caucuses, announced their decisions to quit the race, making them the first major casualties of the Democratic contest.
Iowa Democrats clearly responded to Obama's change-oriented message. Half of the voters who turned out Thursday night said they were looking for a candidate who could bring change to the country while just a fifth said they most prized experience in a potential nominee. Half of those change-oriented voters backed Obama in the caucuses and helped propel him to victory.
The outcome in Iowa sets the stage for what will be a high-stakes battle in New Hampshire on Tuesday, with Clinton now fighting for survival in a state where her once-hefty lead has largely evaporated in the past two months and Obama has been rising.
The New Hampshire primary will be followed by caucuses in Nevada and a critical showdown in South Carolina later this month. The biggest single day of voting ever in a nomination contest will come on Feb. 5, when several of the nation's largest states will hold primaries.
Clinton's campaign long dreaded the results in Iowa, a state that showed resistance to the senator's candidacy despite her popularity nationally and the goodwill felt toward her husband, who campaigned vigorously for her in the final days.
With a huge campaign fund and much of the party establishment behind her, Clinton will have significant assets to employ in the coming contests. But Obama also has a massive campaign fund and has already begun to put organizations into the later-voting states in what his advisers have anticipated could be a lengthy and brutal battle in the weeks ahead.
Edwards's second-place finish was a setback to his hopes of winning the nomination. The former senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee had staked his candidacy on a victory in Iowa, and in the closing days of the campaign appeared to be gaining strength on the basis of his populist appeal to Democrats to rise up and take on corporate interests in Washington.
But the former senator sounded unbowed when he addressed his supporters, saying he had taken on two candidates with vastly superior resources and more than held his own. "The status quo lost and change won," Edwards told a cheering crowd at a downtown Des Moines hotel. "We saw two candidates who thought their money made them inevitable."
But Iowa voters, he said, showed that "if you have a little backbone, a little courage," you can deliver a powerful message, and "that message to the American people is unstoppable, no matter how much money."
"It's undeniably a three-way race. Game on," said Edwards strategist Jonathan Prince. "We were competitive in a caucus that was like a primary. More than 200,000 showed up. Everybody thought we'd be in trouble if the number went above 120,000." Among those skeptics had been senior members of Edwards's campaign team.
The extraordinary turnout was reflected in an entrance poll of Democratic attendees by the National Election Pool, which found that 57 percent said they were participating for the first time. About four in 10 of those newcomers favored Obama.
The fault line in the Democratic race long has been between those voters looking for a candidate with experience and those seeking a leader who represents new ideas and a new direction. In Iowa on Thursday night, voters decisively said they wanted change.
According to the NEP entrance poll of caucus-goers, half of those change voters favored Obama with a fifth each supporting Clinton and Edwards.
Clinton, seeking to become the first female president in U.S. history, had staked her hopes in part on winning decisively among women. Fifty-seven percent of the caucus attendees were women, but the NEP entrance poll showed Obama winning the support of 35 percent of women, compared with 30 percent for Clinton.
Obama won overwhelmingly among young voters, who constituted about a fifth of caucus participants, winning 57 percent of those younger than 30. He also won among voters 30 to 44 and split with Edwards and Clinton among those 45 to 60. Clinton won those voters older than 60.
The two candidates also roughly split the votes of self-identified Democrats, who constituted about three-quarters of all caucus participants. But among independents, Obama swamped both Edwards and Clinton.
Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said of the record turnout: "These were numbers you'd expect almost in a primary. The prodigious turnout was breathtaking, and it eclipsed anything I heard predicted. It's just fabulous to see people engaged in this way."
One crucial group, he said, was young voters. "Younger voters participated in far greater numbers than ever before," said Axelrod as he studied the screen of his BlackBerry, still appearing somewhat stunned by the returns.
In her stump speech in recent days, Clinton has often said that "you learn as much about a person when they don't succeed as when they do." The reference was to her failure to achieve health-care reform in the 1990s, which she says did not hurt her determination.
But the axiom will now apply to her presidential campaign, dealt a severe blow in the Iowa caucuses. Even before the returns were in, her campaign advisers buzzed about whether there would be a staff shakeup or a change of message.
Staff writer Peter Slevin in Iowa and polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.