Obama's victory was not a surprise. However much the press has been portraying this as a stunning upset, Obama's organization was long rumored to be much stronger than Clinton and Edwards's, and staffers of the Illinois Senator were openly predicting victory in the final days. Nonetheless, the manner in which Obama won is truly remarkable, and his victory upends the state of the race dramatically. Hillary Clinton, the inevitable front-runner all the way until the end of October, lost her aura of inevitability at October's Philadelphia debate. But she had remained the favorite to win it all. The roles have now been reversed, and Barack Obama has to be considered the new favorite to become the Democratic nominee.
The scenario that played out last night was Clinton's nightmare: She came in third and lost to Barack Obama. The one comforting thought for her campaign has to be that she managed to stay in a tie for second-place (only 7 delegates separate Edwards and her) but the press is loving the symbol of Clinton coming in third and is going to run with it for days. Clinton is working overtime to move on from Iowa and did not waste time before questioning the legitimacy of the caucus process: Her staff is already murmuring that Iowa has never elected a woman for anything for Congress or statewide which, to be fair, is a rather disturbing fact. And Hillary said today in New Hampshire that at least in the Granite State, "You're not disenfranchised if you work at night. You're not disenfranchised if you're not in the state."
Yet, it is undeniable that something big happened last night. Turnout surpassed anyone's expectations, even those of the most optimistic Obama aides. Nearly 240,000 Iowans went to caucus for Democrats which is nearly the double of what it was in 2004. Among the 57% who were first-time caucus goers, Obama demolished his adversaries: He got 41% to Clinton's 29% and Edwards's pale 18%. On the other hand, Edwards led among voters who had already caucused. Furthermore, and while Obama did win a huge share of independent voters (41%), they only comprised 20% of voters -- much less than what some had predicted. Hillary Clinton cannot claim that Barack Obama won solely on the basis of his strength among non-Democrats, as the two were tied among registered Democrats. Obama appears to have won mostly because of a turnout surge among the youth who participated in much greater numbers. And a stunning 57% of the 17-29 year old crowd voted for Obama. This is what Howard Dean tried to pull off 4 years ago and failed miserably at.
As predicted, realignment played a huge role in the results, and Obama was helped by some sort of deal with Richardson. There is ample documentation that Richardson voters did go massively for Obama last night and that Richardson precinct captains told their group that those were the "informal" instruction, but why did Richardson and Obama keep it secret and the campaigns kept denying it? Was it to avoid the press talking about it in what could undermine the purity of victory? Obama would have won without Richardson's boost but his lead could have been smaller. And we have got to at least wonder about the ethics of not publicizing such a deal and repeatedly denying it.
A second observation about second-choice preferences is that they pushed lower-tier candidates out of the race and sank Clinton into third-place. Richardson, Biden, Dodd and Kucinich got about 3% of the delegates last night, whereas entrance polls showed them at about 15%. That's a significant difference, and most of those voters chose to realign for another candidate. As a result, both Joe Biden and Chris Dodd got a ridiculously low total despite campaigning very hard in the state; they chose to withdraw, freeing up some major endorsements down-the-way such as the firefighters union which was backing Dodd. Entrance polls also showed Edwards trailing Clinton by about 4-5% in raw votes, and he managed to narrowly pass her at the end. That conforms to a lot of anecdotal evidence across the state as observers reported that Clinton gained very few votes between the two rounds of counting and Edwards very often passed her in places where he was third in hte first round of counting.
What does this mean for the rest of the race? Clinton knows that early wins for Obama could make him invincible in the coming weeks, especially if the African-American vote in South Carolina flips in favor of Obama (it has been tied for most of the year). Clinton can hardly afford to wait until Florida where she cannot even campaign due to her pledge -- though it will be interesting to see whether she is tempted to go back on her promise once Iowa and New Hampshire have voted -- and has to get back on track in New Hampshire. A second loss would put her in a hole and make Obama look increasingly inevitable. The last few polls from the Granite State have Clinton up by varying margins -- between 4% and 15% -- and we will see in the coming days just how much of a bounce Barack Obama gets.
Clinton's chances in New Hampshire should not be underestimated. Given that she was tied with Obama prior to Iowa, the Illinois Senator has to be given a slight edge on Tuesday, but Clinton's organization and network is much stronger there than it was in the caucuses. Bill Clinton is very popular in the state and will be dispatched everywhere in the coming days, and she has many more surrogates she can rely on. The Saturday debate could very well be a decisive test, and Hillary Clinton will for the first time go in a debate as the underdog. The question mark now is how negative will Hillary Clinton become in the coming days; she had started to go down that path in December before stopping. But New Hampshire is not Iowa, and she could have no other strategy at this point.
The trouble for Clinton is that movement candidacies pick-up steam remarkably fast. Many high-profile Democrats such as Al Gore might have been staying away from endorsing Obama for fear of offending the likely nominee, but that could change now that Hillary has been defeated once. Obama should start seeing some high-profile names line up behind him. With Obama the new front-runner, the spotlight is now turned on him -- with everything good and bad that entails: He will get more attention, people will tkae him more seriously... but it also means that we should expect more negative stories to come out about him in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, John Edwards had a good showing and has to be happy he beat Clinton. It is undeniable that Edwards did great given that the press barely covered him for much of the year. That he remained competitive with Obama and Clinton despite the way the campaign was framed speaks to his resilience and his talent as a campaigner. But let's face it, he lost his chance at the nomination last night. He put everything in the caucuses, and he would probably have won if turnout had been lower. Yet, and despite all his efforts, his total is inferior to his 2004 result. Edwards needed a win to remain viable. His organization in later states is weak and he does not have that much money. Where can he go from here, and what states can he win?
Edwards presented himself as the part of the demand for change that defeated the status quo. And he is indeed the most progressive of the three main contenders. Yet, it is puzzling that he got a higher share of the vote among conservatives than among liberals, and entrance polls showed him running better among higher-income households. In a state that has never voted for a woman or a black man, he appears to have attracted some of the status-quo vote as well. In his speech last night, he tried to reframe the race as a showdown with Obama. And he said today: "I am not the candidate of glitz; I am not the candidate of glamor. I am the candidate who will fight with every fiber of my being every step of the way." But the more he stays in the race and remains competitive, the better that is likely to be for Hillary Clinton as it gives her an opening to corner Obama.
A longer version of this analysis was posted on the author's blog at Campaign Diaries.