At first it was just a few numbers from the Barack Obama boiler room at campaign headquarters in Des Moines. The reports coming in suggested a giant turnout--the kind of numbers that the Howard Dean campaign had forecast four years ago, but never delivered.
Then came the anecdotes of lines forming around the blocks outside caucus precincts, of too few ballots for the wave of new voters who showed up. Within minutes of the doors closing on the Democratic caucus rooms, the Obama campaign said turnout would be more than 200,000--two-thirds higher than it was in 2004.
For Obama's supporters, the sight of overflowing precincts was almost too much to bear. "I was brought to tears," said Monica Fischer, the wife of the former Iowa Democratic party chair, who was astonished by the turnout at her precinct at Drake University in Des Moines. "I was helping people everywhere who had never been to caucus before. I was getting choked up as I was trying to seat them."
Few people believed the Obama voters would show up, in spite of the big crowds that greeted the candidate at almost every stop in the final month of campaigning. Skepticism--and downright disbelief--greeted the Obama campaign throughout its 10-month journey along Iowa's country roads. A late poll by The Des Moines Register that pointed to a big Obama lead--and a record turnout--was widely criticized as unrealistic. It turned out to be closer to the real result than any other poll in the entire race.
On Thursday evening, the crowds started to flow into the Hy-Vee Hall just around the time that NBC News called the Iowa caucuses for Obama. It was the same giant concrete space that held the 17,000-strong crowd for Oprah Winfrey when she campaigned with Obama last month. At the time, many pundits suggested that Winfrey's appearance would have no impact on the contest, despite her largely female audience. But when MSNBC reported that Obama had won the women's vote in Iowa by several points, the crowd went wild.
How unusual was the sight of an Obama win in the predominantly white state of Iowa? As unusual as the entertainment: the Isiserettes marching band, the young African-American group that marched with the Obamas over to the Jefferson-Jackson dinner that marked a turning point in the campaign. There are many features of Iowa that linger in caucus clichés: the butter cow at the state fair, the pancake breakfasts, the hog farmers. Young black drummers never featured among them.
Still, it's one thing to have an unusual candidate; it's quite another to build a turnout machine that can overturn the party's established order. Obama's team beat one candidate who has spent several years campaigning in Iowa (Edwards), and another who won the endorsement of almost every major elected official (Clinton).
True to form, the Obama organization didn't stop with victory. The campaign's staff handed out fliers to the thousands of supporters who showed up to hear Obama's victory speech on Thursday. The flier carried the headline "Maintain the Momentum" and it urged the army of volunteers to carry on working for Obama in three offices: Des Moines, Cedar Falls and Iowa City. The goal: to run phone banks to work on all the states through Super Tuesday on Feb. 5.
They will need all the firepower they can muster. In a statement, Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton's campaign manager, showed every readiness to slug it out. "This race begins tonight and ends when Democrats throughout America have their say," she said. "Our campaign was built for a marathon and we have the resources to run a national race in the weeks ahead."
For one night, at least, the Obama campaign took some time to savor the sweet moment. "We're going to think about this night for the rest of our lives," said Tom Miller, Iowa's attorney general and one of the few state officials who backed Obama. No matter what happens to Obama in the next states, there was no disputing that simplest of predictions.