Cathy Orpet, a 55-year-old paralegal from Fairfield, came to a huge Hillary Clinton rally here the night before the Iowa caucuses. Orpet's head spun for months between the Democratic candidates. She liked John Edwards's fight for the middle class. She liked Joe Biden's foreign expertise.
She liked Barack Obama but had doubts. "I was really inspired by him," she said. "I thought he had a lot of integrity, but my concern is the same one I've always had, that he needs a little more experience." She came to hear Clinton to see if the experience of a former first lady and current New York senator could persuade her.
On her 25-mile drive from Ottumwa to Fairfield, Orpet realized that Clinton made the case ... for Obama.
"She was talking about how the Bush administration used fear among the people to have it his way. She is right about that. But as I was in my car, I thought to myself, the only one who stood up to that fear was Barack. He was courageous before the war started while she played into the fear herself [by voting to give President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq]. That was the trump card for me." An array of trump cards dropped like hammers in this part of eastern Iowa as a three-way dead heat in the polls became an eight-point Obama victory over Edwards and Clinton. At a caucus at the Young Intermediate School in Davenport, young voters from nearby St. Ambrose College and first-time African-American participants nearly doubled the participation over 2004, from 84 to 160. Of the 160 participants, 104 went for Obama, 27 for Clinton, and 25 for Edwards.
One of the happiest people there was caucus chairman Dan Flaherty. A 43-year-old public high school American government and history teacher, Flaherty said none of his students attended the 2004 caucuses. Thursday night, he saw seven former and five current students at the caucus, including 17-year-old Jordan Broyles (17-year-olds could participate as long as they will be 18 by the general election).
"You always hear people say that they shouldn't give a rookie a chance," said Broyles, who caucused with his 23-year-old sister, a student at St. Ambrose, and his 50-year-old father, a customer service representative for a regional gas utility. "But the way things are, I came for a chance for something different. It would have been a special night no matter what, voting for either a black man or a woman for president." At Garfield Elementary School, a mostly white gathering of 334 participants easily surpassed the approximately 240 caucus-goers of 2004.
There were 138 new registrants, nearly all of whom went for Obama, according to caucus officials there. One person was Kelvin Townsend, a 51-year-old trucking fleet mechanic. He has voted for the Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1980. He was convinced to caucus for Obama by his 43-year-old wife, Julie. She told him that Obama was a consensus builder who would not take rifles out of the hands of hunters.
In addition, their 17-year-old daughter, Stephanie, came to caucus for Obama. "He just seems more real and able to get things done," she said.
On the last day before the caucuses, Obama held a rally in Davenport. He asked for a show of hands of undecided voters. Two of them were St. Ambrose professors Bill Hitchings and Owen Rogal. At the caucuses Rogal went for Obama at Garfield. Hitchings went for Obama in a Bettendorf precinct where Obama scored two-thirds of the delegates.
"I talked to an older black woman at the Obama event," Hitchings said.
"I helped four white women in their 70s find their place at the caucus and they all said the same thing. They said Obama is the hope for their grandsons and their grandchildren. He's become the face of hope." A similar phenomenon occurred on the Republican side as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee defeated the well-oiled machine of Mitt Romney 34 percent to 25 percent.
Mike Schwenker, a 42-year-old finance consultant in Burlington, attended an Edwards rally, saying that he liked both Edwards and Obama, despite his Republican leanings. On caucus night, he went for Huckabee, for many of the reasons people gave for Obama.
"Huckabee was more human, believable, and genuine," Schwenker said.
"He's just a common man."
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is email@example.com.