Council Bluffs, Iowa –“He has a good exit strategy for getting us out of the war with honor,” says Bob Krivanek, standing beneath a Joe Biden sign in a corner of the Kirn Junior High School auditorium. “He’s not tied to any of those lobbyist groups.” Meanwhile, his wife Brenda approaches, and he asks her — “Honey, why are we for Biden?”
This couple is as Republican as they are Democrat — Bob says that his overall second choice is Mitt Romney. But this year they’re sold on Biden — and they’ve been selling him, too. The night before, Bob and Brenda had a new neighbor over for dinner to explain how the caucuses work, and in the process they converted her from Edwards to Biden. Together with Mrs. Krivanek’s college-aged daughter, Elle Jacobs, the Krivanek crew comprises much of Biden’s support in the precinct.
A Democrat new to the state, a 20-year-old girl at her first caucus, an effectively Republican man, and his Democratic wife: who could guess that these four would spend the next hour deciding a statewide election? The action in that room — the Democratic caucus for the 9th precinct of Council Bluffs — will become not just a microcosm of the statewide election, but a significant determiner of the outcome to be broadcast to the nation.
About 50 feet from the small Biden platoon stands a yellow huddle in the back of the auditorium — local firemen in the colors of the International Association of Fire Fighters and wearing Chris Dodd stickers. The seven of them are joined in Dodd’s corner by one woman and a schoolteacher sporting an American flag tie. Their leader is Dodd precinct captain Chris Sorenson, a fireman cited for his valor in Gov. Tom Vilsack’s 2004 state of the state address.
Bill Richardson’s group (led by the only Hispanic present) is nine-strong. In his corner, Greg Andersen, 25, knows his candidate might not be viable, but he also knows that his second choice will not be Hillary Clinton. “I for sure don’t like Hillary and her stance on the war,” he says. “A lot of her values are very close to the values of the Republican Party. They’re not close to those of her husband. They are two different people, and it makes me angry to see her using his name to get elected.”
Then there are the three super powers: Clinton, Obama, Edwards, each in their corner of the room. The opening count runs as follows:
That’s just the beginning: now it’s time for the realignment. To win delegates in a precinct a candidate must receive at least 15-percent of the vote there — in this auditorium that translates to 26 people. For a few brief moments, each of the three minor camps — Biden, Dodd, Richardson — tries to persuade the two others to join them. But it is clear that none of the three will survive the night. Their supporters are told to join a viable group — or form one.
The bigger groups begin to invite them over, to chant at them as if at a football game: “HIL-LA-RY! HIL-LA-RY!”
The sing-song tones ring out: “Edwards, Edwards!” and “Join Obama! [Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!]”.
One young woman, holding a bakery box, shouts across the room: “Do you guys want some cookies? Come to Edwards!” After several minutes, the caucus chairman calls for attention. “I’m going to have to ask for silence for a moment so that people can think,” he says.
“It’s past time for that!” one man shouts, drawing chuckles. “If you’re not for Edwards, you’re not thinking!” More laughter. It’s intense, but light hearted and polite.
In the Dodd camp, Sorenson is trying to persuade his firemen to go to Obama as a bloc. Yet his men hesitate — perhaps it bothers them that Obama’s precinct captain is Sorenson’s wife. One fireman objects: “I’m not voting for anyone else. I’ll just grab my coat and go.”
He grabs his coat, but before he can leave, an Edwards campaign ambassador approaches. “What do you guys hang from the ladders at firefighters’ funerals?” he asks the men in yellow. An awkward moment ensues. “The American flag!” he answers his own question. Then, he points right at Mrs. Sorenson, and declares: “Obama doesn’t salute the American flag.” For good measure, he adds that Obama was sworn in to the Senate on the Koran. (Not true, but all’s fair in the heat of a caucus moment.)
The firefighters awkwardly ignore this rant, and the school teacher returns from the Biden-Richardson corner with a proposal: all three camps join together in an undecided bloc. This would give them two — or possibly even three — uncommitted delegates to the county convention. This appeals to the whole Dodd crowd.
Hillary’s emissary appears at this point. “She’s done more for firefighters than anyone else,” he pleads. But the man with his coat in his hand starts to leave, and the other firemen raise their hands in protest — “Please, leave us alone.” From the beginning of the night, all of the Dodd types have made it clear they will never support Hillary. Three say they would definitely vote for a Republican over her.
Sorenson leads his crew down to the independent corner, awkwardly walking right past his wife and the whole Obama camp. The independent group, 32 strong in the beginning, has dwindled, with a handful of Richardson and Biden supporters wandering over to join Obama or Edwards. Two of them join Hillary.
What is left is an unruly bunch. Ideologically, it ranges from the conservative fireman, jacket in arms, to a Kucinich supporter who has rejected Kucinich’s plea to caucus with Obama as a second choice. They do a head count: only 23 remain undecided, three short of viability.
Immediately, two more undecideds peel off. One goes to Edwards, evoking cheers. The Kucinich lady goes to Hillary, frowning and explaining that it’s her fourth choice.
The group dissolves amid groans. Chris Sorenson walks to Obama, and almost all the firemen follow him. Richardson’s precinct captain is happy to join Obama as well, but some of his crew walk across the room to Edwards, leaving behind four voters: the jacket-carrying fireman (who makes it clear that with Dodd’s loss, he’ll be voting Republican in November), Krivanek, his wife, and their daughter Elle.
“That’s it for me,” says Krivanek. He’s leaving–he doesn’t want to be counted for any of the other candidates. “It’s Biden or nothing.” His wife doesn’t say it in so many words, but she’s standing by her man.
But their daughter Elle is another matter. “Mom, I’m going over there,” she says nervously. Her mother supports her decision, and Elle heads to the opposite corner of the room with her neighbor — the Edwards side. Cheers erupt, and the caucus is over.
Five minutes later, the final count is handed down:
Hillary has picked up only three delegates from the unaligned, while Edwards has gained 13 and Obama 15. This is the same pattern that the rest of the state saw — the same pattern that each of us predicted prior to caucus night. Hillary is no one’s second choice.
The 9th precinct sends 16 delegates to the Pottawattamie County Democratic convention, the caucus chairman announces. Edwards, on the strength of his one-vote victory, will receive six of them, Clinton and Obama get five each.
One young girl, then, has decided the entire precinct’s fate. In how many precincts did something like this happen?
The caucus-goers then pick the delegates and head home. As the night progresses, Edwards bests Hillary in Iowa, taking second place by just seven delegates. That single extra delegate provided by Elle Jacobs’s last-minute choice ends up being the one that gives Edwards 29.75 percent of the state’s delegates and keeps Hillary at 29.47 percent. Had Elle Jacobs instead made the “woman’s choice” of Clinton, Hillary’s total would have rounded up to 30-percent instead of down to 29. We might be hearing about an Edwards-Clinton tie for second place.
Third place in Iowa, behind an Obama victory, was always Hillary’s worst-case scenario. Thanks to Edwards’s one-vote victory in a chaotic junior high school auditorium in Pottawattamie County, her nightmare came true.
–David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter. Timothy Carney is a reporter in Washington, D.C.