In Precinct 70, the Numbers Tell the Story

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank sketches precinct 70's caucus in Des Moines, Iowa.
By Dana Milbank
Friday, January 4, 2008

DES MOINES, Jan. 3 -- And so, after a year of campaigning and tens of millions of candidates' dollars, it came down to this: 600 people packed into a gymnasium at Merrill Middle School ("Home of the Mustangs!") and a burly man on a stage, perspiring heavily.

"I've been sweating since 3 o'clock," said the man, caucus chairman Jeff Goetz.

For good reason. Goetz's precinct, Des Moines's 70th, is believed to be the largest in Iowa. Both the Clinton and Obama campaigns held it up as a test case that would indicate who would prevail in Iowa. Here, as elsewhere across the state, Hillary Clinton's superior campaign organization would battle Barack Obama's passionate, but young and unaffiliated, supporters.

On paper, it looked like a rout. Brendan Comito, the Obama precinct chairman, said he had commitments from 270 people to support his candidate. But, Comito hastened to add, "that doesn't mean they're all gonna show up."

By contrast, Clinton precinct chairwoman Margi Weiss had 120 "ones and twos" on her clipboard -- firm commitments to caucus for Clinton. But, she added, "we have some very seasoned people."

Standing in front of a smaller crowd in the gymnasium bleachers, John Edwards captain Leslie Pomerantz predicted 150 votes, but she didn't seem very confident. "We'll be viable" was all she predicted, meaning Edwards would get the 15 percent of total votes necessary to reach the second round of voting.

The residents of Precinct 70, a couple miles west of downtown Des Moines, are well educated and wealthier than average, and their caucus is not the homey living-room scene of the popular imagination. The CNN campaign bus was parked outside, and network cameras filmed all four precincts inside. Also on hand: five TV crews -- including one from Japan -- as well as National Public Radio and a stream of newspaper reporters. For reasons not entirely clear, two caucus observers chose to dress up, as a chimpanzee and a rodent.

As anticipated, the Clinton machine was the best organized. Ninety minutes before the caucus began, volunteers covered the school grounds in "Hillary" yard signs. A squadron of volunteers lined the hallways with clipboards and stickers; each precinct boasted a Clinton "decorations" captain in charge of posters, a get-out-the-vote captain, a transportation captain to arrange rides, and a precinct captain.

They've knocked on every door in the precinct -- "multiple times," said precinct chair Weiss. While supporters searched for parking far from the school, Clinton volunteers shuttled her supporters from a nearby parking lot they had reserved in advance. Inside the gym, union members wore green AFSCME stickers pronouncing "I'm caucusing for Hillary."

The caucus chairman, Goetz, had some trouble getting things going. First he delayed the start because of crowds waiting to get in. Then he realized he didn't have a pen and borrowed one from a cameraman. Then he announced that 434 people were in attendance, before changing that to 623 and then 551 and finally settling on 554 -- which meant that a candidate needed 83 voters to be "viable."

Then the trash-talking began. Obama's crowd appeared slightly larger than Clinton's, but Clinton volunteer Jack Graham taunted: "Most of them are observers. Look at them -- they won't be 18 for another 10 years."

But then Goetz ordered supporters to group themselves by candidates in the four corners of the room -- and the Obama crowd looked significantly larger than Clinton's and Edwards's. "We're not counting the top tier," Goetz announced.

The caucusgoers revolted. "No -- we need to know now!"

The Edwards crowd counted off. The tally, 103, produced a modest cheer. Clinton's supporters counted off next. Her tally, also 103, elicited oohs and murmurs, halfhearted cheers, and grim looks from the Clinton bleacher. Then came Obama: 231 -- and a roar from the young voices in Obama's corner fills the room.

It was official: In Precinct 70, Obama's Children's Crusade defeated the Clinton machine and the Edwards populists. And the rest were out: Joe Biden (46), Bill Richardson (38), uncommitted (16), Dennis Kucinich (13), Christopher Dodd (3) and Mike Gravel (1).

"We will now start the realignment," Goetz announced, like a carnival barker, and ordered the "designated arm-twisters" to start their work. Richardson supporters held a vote about joining Obama. An Edwards supporter offered cookies to Richardson supporters.

"It looks like an explosion for Obama," concluded Jim Zeller, an undecided. "If it's gonna be a phenomenon, I want to be a part of it."

Obama's young supporters started clapping and chanting "We want you!" Comito urged defectors to his side: "More undecideds! Two more coming! Come on in!" The Obama section gradually filled with people wearing Biden and Richardson.

"Oh, this is huge," said a young Obama supporter.

"Big night for Hillary," a Clinton backer grumbled to his neighbor.

A Clinton supporter made a last-minute appeal to the crowd: "She's the one best prepared to fight the fight against a Republican candidate!" An Edwards representative countered: "He has a sincere concern for the less fortunate."

But Comito, chewing gum, looked cocky. "Barack Obama is polling better against Republican candidates than anybody else in the field!"

And against the Democratic candidates, too.

Goetz read out the final tally: 289 for Obama (5 delegates), 131 for Edwards (2 delegates), 120 for Clinton (2 delegates). Obama's youth had triumphed, and the Clinton machine was broken. "Fired up!" the Obama supporters chanted. "Ready to go!"

© 2008 The Washington Post Company