Caucus Catharsis

DES MOINES – At a speech last night at Hoover High School, after nearly a year of breakneck campaigning, Barack Obama sounded tired. His voice was hoarse. He looked a little pale.

People were still screaming. But it felt like there was a disconnect between his words and the crowd’s reaction. Non-climactic lines were met with climactic cheering. The roar often drowned him out, emphasizing the disproportionality of it all. It’s like they were screaming not because Obama had made a compelling point, but because they wanted to scream.

In dozens of conversations with Iowa Democrats and undecideds over the past few days, it’s become clear to me that most people are going with their gut. John Edwards and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have policy differences—which make for rhetorical battles about universal vs. non-universal health care or combat troops vs. non-combat troops—but they don’t diverge enough to split Democrats ideologically. So most voters go with whoever appeals most viscerally. Edwards supporters enjoy his combative style. Hillary devotees admire her experience and competence. Obama fans love his talk about changing politics itself, whatever that means. People will agree or disagree with certain policies, but when you ask why they support Candidate X instead of Candidate Y, their answer is often, “I trust him,” or “I just like him.”

And that’s why, over the past few days, it’s been less about message than about turnout. The last Des Moines Register poll predicted higher turnout among independents than ever before—every single one of which is a potential Democratic supporter. (Some campaigns say the poll’s estimate overshoots; tonight we’ll find out.) As a result, the Democratic candidates have held 195 events in Iowa since Monday, trying to clasp as many hands and look into as many faces as possible.

But even if one candidate wins by as many as, say, four percentage points, remember that’s just a few thousand Iowans. For all the hoopla surrounding this caucus (for which we are plenty guilty), any victory hailed as “decisive” is still just the result of a few thousand gut feelings. Of course, that’s democracy.