IOWA CITY, IOWA — The lines into Precinct 1's caucus site stretched out the door, up a flight of stairs, and past the lockers of Iowa City High School. That was encouraging, no matter who these Democrats were backing.
"I caucused for Hillary last time, too," said Sue Feeney, 60, wearing a shirt that plopped the Democratic front-runner's head on the body of Rosie the Riveter. "I don't think I saw this many of us."
Last time, 2008, was rough on Hillary Clinton voters — nowhere as much as Johnson County, Iowa City, Precinct 1. The Barack Obama campaign, which outsmarted Clinton's nearly everywhere, was especially clever in areas that combined academics and students with blue collar townies. Just 356 people had turned out. Obama won most of them, then his supporters ensured that John Edwards would crack the 15 percent threshold, denying a delegate to Clinton. She came away with one delegate, buried under the Obama wave.
This year, this Monday night, Precinct 1 had 11 delegates up for grabs. One wall of the high school's cafeteria was decorated with Hillary kitsch — direct mail, handmade signs. The other had been wallpapered with rally signs for Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), different billionaire-mocking slogans, all in the ominous (for Clintonites) white-and-blue Obama color scheme. A fast-depleting water bottle cooler and seemingly endless box of chocolate chip cookies anchored the middle of the room, neutral territory.
Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa), who after the 2014 midterm debacle was the party's sole representative in Washington, found the Hillary side of the room. Easy to spot — no one else was wearing a suit — he mingled and set expectations. "If we end up with five delegates for Hillary, six for Bernie, one for O'Malley, that's a victory," said Loebsack.
As stragglers registered, Loebsack volunteered himself as the "entertainment." He didn't used to be a congressman. In 2004, he was a college professor, as vulnerable to enthusiasm and disappointment as any other activist.
"I was campaigning for Howard Dean, and it was my job to break the news that he'd come in third," he said. "That was bad enough, but then we saw his election night speech and — well, you know what happened. But a Dean scream now is nothing compared to what we’re seeing on the other side, folks!"
That got a legitimate laugh from people who did not really want to fight each other. On both sides of the room, there was — at first — mutual admiration. Jeff Haring, 50, sat cross-legged in the crowded Hillary section, confounding people with a "Feel the Bern" T-shirt that he'd slapped with two "I'm With Her" stickers.
"I got practical," he explained.
Megan Daly, a 29-year-old baker, said she had wavered between Bernie and Hillary until the Jan. 5 release of her autism policy paper. That had not made a ton of news.
"It was a very humanizing policy paper," said Daly. "I recently self-diagnosed on the spectrum, so that meant a lot to me. The amount of terrible things that people on the spectrum have to put up with — the horrible press, the vaccine nonsense — the fact that she was listening to us was very important."
Just 23 minutes after the suggested start time, every voter was registered, and the culling began. Five-hundred-ninety-one Democrats had crowded into the room. In a show of hands, it seemed to be evenly divided between the front runners. Precinct captains moved through their flocks, counting the handwritten number cards held by each voter.
"Bernie has 267, Clinton has 287," said the precinct captain. "O'Malley people, do we have a number?
"Seventeen! Okay, you have a little ways to go to 89."
That was the effectively the end of O'Malley's campaign; Precinct 1, like almost every precinct in Iowa, found O'Malley under the threshold. The number of undecided, uncommitted voters equaled O'Malley's; they needed only a few chairs to add the supporters of the Maryland governor who did not immediately scramble for Hillary or Bernie.
There were, in other words, just enough undecided voters to push Bernie past Hillary — if they could be won over. Thirty minutes were allotted for the sale, starting with speeches of up to two minutes in defense of either candidate. (Nobody wanted to make even a rote argument for O'Malley.) The Clinton supporters included an immigrant from Denmark, who assured her fellow Democrats that socialism worked in practice, but she worried that Sanders could not win.
"If you're somebody who voted in 2008 and 2016, how would you like to know you went down in history?" said Jason Witt, 36. "To not only elect the first African American president, but also elect the first female president?"
Sanders supporters defied any stereotypes of the "Bernie bro." They made a softer sell than Sanders himself had been making from the trail. "We have an amazing debate happening in the Democratic Party right now, and if we vote for Bernie Sanders, we keep that debate going," said Rod Sullivan, 49.
The advocates for both candidates then swarmed the tables of the undecideds; some went further, into Clinton or Sanders territory, to see if anyone could be moved. Clay Claussen, 67, a Clinton precinct captain, sat for a few minutes with Maria Salinas, 41. The University of Iowa employee couldn't really express why she was still undecided. "Who can you imagine in the White House?" asked Claussen. "When it comes down to it, who do you see in that job?"
Salinas stayed polite but silent. Claussen moved on. A few minutes later, there was a cheer from the Sanders side of the room — Salinas had agreed, with her 17-year-old daughter, to caucus for Sanders.
"I decided that Hillary was like — that's been done, you know?" Salinas explained.
In the moment, with people switching sides and war whoops going up, it was easy for each side to imagine a win. But the Hillary captains, in matching caucus shirts — and generally, with firmer memories of 2008 — did not lose the room. After one more count it became official: 306 for Hillary and 285 for Bernie.
This, the Bernie supporters agreed, was not the room to be in. The other precinct meeting at the high school had, based on text message reports and the muffled sound of cheering, gone big for their guy.
"How's he doing across the state?" asked Coen Olson, 21, a student who'd given one of the pro-Sanders speeches. "The only way I'm seeing results is on a Snapchat filter. If I was going to be really angry, it would have been if we'd been blown out."
At that moment, Sanders was narrowly behind. Unbeknownst to anyone in the room, there would not be a call in the statewide contest for six more hours, when MSNBC made a projection; the state party wouldn't declare a winner until half a day later. A few dozen activists ended up heading to a "unity party" at a nearby lounge, tunneling through dishes of chicken wings as CNN played the results of the Republican race. The sight of Ted Cruz drew boos; Donald Trump drew laughter; Marco Rubio, seen as the most electable candidate on the other side, drew silence.
Clinton got the best reception all night when she did something totally unrelated to the party's internal debate — she butted right into Cruz's loquacious victory speech, sparing the Democrats the sight of him. The room froze and listened as Clinton talked. Not until Sanders followed her was there any sort of dissent. As some Hillary supporters moved closer to the TVs, the precinct captains, like Claussen, muttered about the dreamy, debunked idealism Sanders was peddling. The Sanders supporters had heard all of that, and did not care.
"Bernie will keep her honest," said Lou Hileman, 58, who had considered voting for Clinton but figured Sanders might keep her in his presidential cabinet. "I have to tell you, though, my favorite is Elizabeth Warren — I mean, I want to be her if I die and get reincarnated."