The Democratic Story from Iowa: Barack Obama

By any measure, January third represented an amazing victory for Senator Barack Obama. All along, Obama had termed his candidacy "improbable," noting that the pundits had declared his run for the White House "premature" and given him little chance of victory.

But he did win the Iowa caucuses, and it was a big win.

Consider the following:

  • Despite his being a one-term Senator, Obama was up against a field of extraordinarily prominent Democrats. In addition to two senior Senators and a popular Governor, Obama had to contend with Senator Hillary Clinton and former Senator John Edwards. Clinton, who campaigned throughout the state with her husband, the former President, was early on seen as the "inevitable" winner. Senator John Edwards, the Democratic Party’s 2004 Vice Presidential candidate had finished second in the Iowa caucuses in 2004 and had not stopped campaigning in the state since 2005.
  • Obama’s margin of victory, 38% (Obama) to 30% (Edwards) to 29% (Clinton), was larger than that achieved by John Kerry, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2004. And in reality, Obama’s victory was larger than the actual margin reported in the press. The 38%-30%-29% margin represents the percentages of delegates selected in Iowa’s precinct caucuses; however, some reports note that in the actual vote tallies, Obama received almost 50% of the total votes cast.
  • In fact, it’s important to note that the overall number of votes cast for Obama was greater than the total number of Republicans who turned out to vote in their party’s caucuses. And Iowa is a "red" (i.e., Republican-leaning) state.
  • While some had projected that the number of Iowans who would turn out to caucus would be larger than the state’s previous high of a little over 200,000, no one expected that 232,000 Iowans would turn out to caucus in the Democratic contest alone, with another 116,000 turning out in the Republican contest. (By contrast, the previous high turnouts were in 1988 when the total turnout was 233,000, and in 1980 when the numbers from both caucuses totaled 206,000.)
  • It is important to note that, while Obama won the vote among Democrats who voted in the Democratic caucus (by a 32-31 edge over Senator Clinton), it was independents and Republicans who crossed over to vote in the Democratic caucus who gave Obama his margin of victory.
  • This is significant because it helps Obama to make the case that among all the Democratic candidates, he is the one best positioned to win in November 2008. While his counterparts John Edwards and Hillary Clinton have largely focused their message on the Democratic Party’s base vote, Obama has been able to reach across party lines and win strong support from Republicans and independents.

This was in evidence in the remarkable victory speech that Senator Obama gave Thursday night. While Senator Clinton and former Senator Edwards focused largely on Democratic themes, addressing their remarks to their supporters, Obama used the occasion to deliver "a presidential address" to the nation. One analyst observed on the day after the election that, while Clinton and Edwards and all of the Republican candidates had so positioned themselves with partisan appeals that, should they become their party’s nominee, they would have to find a way to reach out to the other side, it was Obama, alone, who had found the way to win on the Democratic side with a message that was equally compelling to Republicans and independents.


In the end, the Iowa caucuses did what they were supposed to do. After a year of meeting, greeting, questioning and sizing up the candidates, Iowa voters filtered out the strongest campaigns. The candidates will now go onto the next round: New Hampshire’s primary election on January eighth. While some Democrats have withdrawn from the race, it is clear that this is now, in reality, a three-person contest. Polls taken in New Hampshire on January third show that Senator Clinton’s lead in that state is shrinking (she once led Obama in the state by over 20 points, but the most recent polls give her 32%, 26% to Obama and 20% for Edwards).

After his Iowa win, Senator Obama goes into New Hampshire with advantages. He enters the state with momentum and a compelling message. He will, no doubt, get a bounce in the national polls. If Obama wins New Hampshire handily, the momentum he gains from a second win will only make it more difficult for Clinton or Edwards to overtake him.

John Edwards also has advantages of his own. He has strong union support in New Hampshire, and a populist message that will play well with that state’s voters. As Edwards correctly noted after his second place Iowa finish, two thirds of voters in the Democratic caucuses in that state, voted for change. He will try to convince New Hampshire voters that he, and not Obama, is the better agent of change.

Despite her strong organization and all of the assets represented by her "virtual incumbency" (her husband and other recognizable figures from the Clinton White House campaigning with her), it must be recognized that the New York Senator was dealt a blow in Iowa. With her aura of invincibility shattered, she now faces the battle of her political life. New Hampshire is a "must-win" – losing two in a row may prove fatal to her candidacy. While a strong second place finish would not be as fatal to John Edwards, who demonstrated resiliency in 2004, Clinton cannot afford the luxury of a near win.

All in all, a remarkable starting point to what is proving to be a fascinating 2008 elections.

(The Republican contest requires a separate treatment, and will be the subject of next week’s post-New Hampshire column.)