Innocence vs. Experience

The difference between watching Obama and Clinton in Iowa.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—I’ve seen Barack Obama’s show. I’ve seen the crowds. I’ve seen the audacity. I’ve seen the hope. I knew what to expect Tuesday night at his event at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, and yet after it was over I was still impressed. He was funny and passionate, and he connected with his big audience. When he left the stage, the room was on its feet and chanting with him. Nothing like that happened during the two days I followed Hillary Clinton. Her performances were solid and her audiences were enthusiastic, but they didn’t interrupt her with applause the way they did with Obama.

A talented candidate works with the rhythm of an audience, taking it through a range of emotions—humor, passion, and anger. If the candidate does it right, the room feels more committed at the end of the event than during the opening jokes. That’s what it was like when Obama spoke.

“Why isn’t he killing her?” asked a colleague after Obama’s hour-long visit. It’s the persistent question for his campaign. He wows the crowds but lags in the polls everywhere but Iowa. One answer may lie in a question an Obama supporter asked the crowd before the senator arrived. Warming up the room, Linda Langston, a local politician, asked how many of the people there had never attended a caucus. It seemed like nearly half the room raised their hands. At the Clinton events, where the average age is at least 10 years older, every person I interviewed afterward offered a list of the candidates they’d supported in the caucuses during previous elections. This is the big question for the Obama campaign, which needs to do well in Iowa to survive: Can he lock in voters after they leave his rallies?

Since the start of the campaign, Obama strategists have insisted they would not make the mistake Howard Dean did in 2004, when he was unable to get the enthusiastic crowds to commit to Iowa’s complicated caucus process, which requires an evening’s commitment, not just the flipping of a switch. So, Obama asks voters to fill out fliers to signify their support and encourages people to volunteer as precinct captains. A sophomore at the college who is planning to attend her first caucus introduced the process to the audience as if to say, See, you can do it, too. Langston tried to make the whole process fun, but it sounded more like getting a flu shot. “It’s really not that difficult,” she insisted.

Hillary Clinton’s pitch to voters, by contrast, is more low-key. It almost comes as a surprise at the end of her speeches when she asks her audiences if they will consider caucusing for her on Jan. 3. Clinton is so formidable in her pantsuit uniform, with her Secret Service agents and swarm of aides, that when she moves into plea mode, it sounds discordant. Here you are, the inevitable candidate, ignoring your primary opponents—but you still have to ask for votes, which reminds us the outcome two months from now is still totally up in the air.

And yet Clinton is hustling. Her voice was shot after her four-day tour. As she answered a question in the historic prairie town of Amana, Iowa, Tuesday afternoon, what started as a croak turned into a cough. “I need some health care,” she joked. It wasn’t just her many public stops across the state that had worn her out. Between her appearances, she has been holding smaller meetings to convince undecided voters, inspire precinct captains, and make personal appeals. She’s doing what’s necessary to put in place the ground organization that is crucial to getting those who say they’ll support you to actually do so when the evening comes.

After Obama spoke Wednesday morning in Bettendorf on the eastern edge of Iowa, Pam Schroder nodded with approval. A longtime secretary at the education agency where he delivered a policy speech on helping the middle class, she liked what she heard. She hasn’t decided whom to vote for yet, but she’s narrowed it down to Clinton and Obama. “I’m leaning toward Barack,” she said, explaining that she wanted to hear Clinton in person, too, before finally making up her mind. She’s taking the process very seriously. Though she’s voted in several elections, she’s never participated in a caucus. If Obama wins in Iowa, it will be because he was able to capture people just like Schroder.