By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Kate O’Connor|
WEST DES MOINES, IOWA— When the Democratic caucus of the 116th Precinct convened Monday night in the Rex Mathes Elementary School auditorium, a long line of eager parka-bundled participants snaked into the freezing streets of this modest, middle-class neighborhood. Just as the insurgent Howard Dead campaign had confidently predicted, this precinct and the nearly 2,000 others meeting across Iowa at the same hour were being flooded — even inundated — with energized, first-time caucus-goers. The only glitch was, they weren’t coming out for Dr. Dean.
All week long the polls — wildly unreliable in a state where people caucus instead of ballot — had been suggesting that putative front-runner Dean was slipping and that the two Johns, Kerry and Edwards, were surging.
Now that trend was quickly materializing.
Volunteer workers at Rex Mathes scrambled to register on the spot — as Iowa law allows — the deluge of voters either coming in for the first time or switching to the Democrats. Among them was a clump of Dean supporters notably younger than much of the rest of the crowd. But also signing up were a greater number of independent, unaffiliated and even disaffected Republicans, many of them wearing Kerry or Edwards buttons.
After perfunctory pitches from a designated rep from each campaign, the 121 Iowans present — in the bizarre and endearing ritual of caucus voting — cast no ballots but instead gathered in different corners of the room to stand literally for their preferred candidate. On the lower right-hand side of the room, about 10 gathered for veteran Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt. Bad news for Dick because caucus rules require a candidate to get a minimum of 15 percent to be counted.
Worse for the supporters of Dennis Kucinich who were present: a grand total of two standing next to four or five “undecideds.”
But up in the right-hand corner of the room, a giddy, chattering knot of Edwards supporters sounded off their numbers: “35,” “36,” “37,” “38!”
“Thirty-eight! Whoa!” shouted out the last supporter, a well-dressed young woman who was showered with applause.
Across the room, a burly local Fire Department lieutenant, Bill Post, who’s precinct captain for the Kerry campaign, had even more to celebrate as he counted 44 supporters for the Massachusetts senator.
Right in front of them stood the more subdued group of Deanies. Ross Anderson, a third-year law student at nearby Drake University, dressed in a pale-yellow Dean precinct-captain T-shirt, slowly counted and re-counted the former Vermont governor’s followers and came up with only 24, a tick less than 20 percent.
After this initial count, the caucus-goers were given a half-hour more to horse-trade, to cajole the undecided, the orphaned Kucinich and Gephardt supporters, and anyone else for that matter, to come over to their candidate’s side before a final count.
“The war issue, it’s the war issue,” said 23-year-old Courtney Thompson, a full-time Democratic Party worker, as she stood on the stage and urged the audience to defect to the Dean corner. “The way we went over there was wrong. And I have a problem with people being against the war only after they voted for it. It’s . . . it’s bad judgment.”
Standing behind Thompson as she made her plea, I could clearly glimpse the sea of older, unblinking and unconvinced faces staring back at her. It all sounded like she was begging Granny for the keys to the Mercedes, and Granny wasn’t going for it.
By 7:45 p.m., the final tally of the 116th was in. Kerry, 48. Edwards, 48. Dean, 24. One vote, Iowa’s secretary of state, who lives in the neighborhood, was undeclared. As the Kerry and Edwards campaigners whooped it up and slapped each others’ backs, the Deaniacs stood quiet and visibly disappointed, like some sinister and invisible force had just squeezed the breath out of them. They reminded me of a moment 14 years ago when I saw a group of Sandinista Youth stand listless and shell-shocked in a Managua plaza as the news rolled in that President Daniel Ortega had lost the election and that their revolution — which they thought would re-shape Nicaragua for generations to come — had just been voted out of power.
I’m not trying to draw any cute comparisons between Ortega and Dean. I’ll leave that to Rush Limbaugh. But the Dean campaign did come into Iowa with the sort of cocky crusading confidence and sense of inevitability that produced a very Sandinista-like hubris. At once the insurgent and the most-moneyed candidate, an outsider but with all the insider endorsements, and buoyed by a vast network of fervent, out-of-state, orange-capped volunteers (who are also quite reminiscent of the sandalistas who pilgrimaged to Managua throughout the 1980s), Dean was supposed to have all the bases covered. Instead, he mightily struck out. Cut this anyway you please, but finishing 20 points behind John Kerry and more than a dozen points behind John Edwards — a candidate who had been struggling for media attention only two weeks ago — is nothing less than a catastrophe for the Dean campaign.
The Dean supporters mistook their own moral fervor and their undeniably intense level of commitment and loyalty for political popularity. They may have wanted to “take back the Democratic Party,” but there was another 80 percent of the party — at least here in Iowa — that wasn’t giving.