DES MOINES, IOWA —This is one of the strangest columns I’ve ever had to write. I tap this out in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, a day before the dramatic first-in-the-country presidential caucuses. And yet, thanks to the peculiarities of the technology and mechanics of the publishing industry, most of you will be reading this just after the results of those caucuses come in.
So, no way I’m going to stick out my half-frozen neck and make any predictions. At least not as to who will win. But I’m certainly comfortable taking a gratuitous shot at trying to interpret those results in advance.
Some among the pundits have said that, depending on whether the pragmatic-sounding Hillary Clinton or the dreamy Barack Obama (or the fiery John Edwards) triumphs, Democrats will have chosen to go with either their heads or their hearts.
Allow me to amend that prognostication. The results will tell us whether Democrats have gone with both their heads and their hearts together or, instead, with some other, nether part of their anatomy. For those, like myself, who have long and justifiably argued that internecine Democratic politics are about as tantalizing as a tsetse-fly orgy, we are now confronted by a pleasant surprise. Damn, there really are some real choices this time around. And it’s up to Democratic voters, precisely, to make a mark.
Chasing around behind Edwards, Clinton and Obama this past week, traveling, at times, hundreds of miles through the snow back and forth along I-80, eating breakfast in Davenport, lunching in Ottumwa and supping in Des Moines, I could be clocking 300 to 400 miles per day. But much of the time it felt like I kept passing through an invisible membrane starkly separating one distinct world from another.
Retail ground campaigns like those run in Iowa are not just bubbles, but veritable self-contained ecospheres. Candidate events are packed with self-selecting audiences, and trying to venture a guess as to who’s ahead and who’s not, who’s got the Big Mo or the Big Slow, simply by sizing up campaign rallies, is a fool’s errand.
During the 2004 campaign, for example, even as Howard Dean was collapsing in the polls, his closing Iowa rallies were huge, electric events. John Kerry was in ascension, but his meet-and-greets were low-key, sometimes even dour and funereal. Only among Edwards’ folks could you feel something like authentic momentum, and, indeed, he came from nowhere to almost win.
Watching Edwards on several occasions this week, as he spoke to cheering overflow crowds, he was surely trying to replicate his eleventh-hour boom of ’04. “I’ve felt this energy, this excitement, this momentum before, and it’s real. It’s no accident,” he said to a Des Moines audience of more than 1,000 roaring supporters a few days ago. And I know he was really feeling it.
Obama has been saying very much the same thing to jazzed-up crowds who also feel they’re poised on the verge of something significant. “There comes a moment in each generation,” Obama said to a wildly applauding Des Moines crowd on New Year’s Day. “This is our moment. This is our time.”
And hundreds show up hours in advance to pack a rural community meeting room for a glimpse of Hillary Clinton or her Big Dog hubby.
But, again, beware of making any definitive judgments based on crowd size or mood. Go to an Edwards event and you’d think most Democrats were T-shirted steelworkers. At an Obama rally, it seems the whole world is a university. And Hillary’s world — at least here in Iowa — seems composed mostly of lawyers and schoolteachers, retired schoolteachers.
But about those different worlds. In the Edwards and Obama events, the rooms and halls brim with the dreamers and doers who literally want to change the world, as hokey as that might sound; or at least they want to change a significant part of it. Call them romantic, or naive, or zealots or bumpkins snookered by smooth-talking pols, they have, indeed, invested their brains, their hearts and their hopes in a bizarre political process that combines the highest principles with the most base of show-biz ethics. And it’s those sorts of audiences at whom Obama and Edwards aim their talks. And they’ve been doing it extremely well in these final days.
Inside the Hillary bubble, it’s a different crew altogether. Here are the folks who seem to want to change very little except who occupies the White House. Pardon my sweeping judgments, but the Hillaryites don’t seem to invest that much in politics itself. It’s no accident that her strongest legs of support are the elderly who, having little future, care very little about it. Or the uneducated who, perhaps willingly or more likely as victims of circumstance, eschew the tedium of policy debates. Oprah may have endorsed Barack Obama, but it’s Hillary who speaks most directly to her audience: the more apolitical, the less ideological, the less engaged. Her events are run like game shows, the audience warmed up with an opening act of trivia contests and T-shirt giveaways and then readied to be spoon-fed a meticulously crafted script.
Three candidates. Two different worlds.
Starting Thursday night, Democrats will decide which one they want to live in.
For post-caucus news from Cooper and others starting Thursday, check laweekly.com.