January 5, 2008

Microcosms of Microcosms

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DAVENPORT, Iowa — Microcosms of Microcosms: the caucus at precinct D63.

“We changed the world tonight,” said the Scott County coordinator for the Obama campaign at a caucus after-party practically bursting with ecstasy. Champagne bottles popped open every few seconds, and loud cheers of “Fired up! Ready to Go” and the more generic “Woooo!” reverberated around the campaign office, between a broad swath of hundreds of supporters, young and old, black and white. It looked a little like an after-party for a really, really good concert; but it felt like much more than that.
That was the microcosm. A few hours away in the state-wide celebration in Des Moines, the victorious Obama declared, “On this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.” The crowd roared. But the state-wide celebration must also be called a microcosm, with 49 more states to go.
And in a microcosm of those two microcosms, at the Davenport precinct D63 in the Sudlow Middle School gym, the Obama excitement was palpable from the very beginning. Many caucus-goers noted that perhaps the number of Obama supporters seemed so overwhelming because the Senator’s table had been set up near the gym’s bleachers.
337 people had showed up to this Democratic precinct — an astounding increase of over 50 percent from last time — so that each candidate would need 51 supporters (15 percent) to be counted.
The night began with signs around the room for the lower-profile candidates, including Dodd, Biden, Richardson and even Kucinich (“This is how I always am,” the one Kucinich supporter told me, “sitting alone with a sign I made myself.”)
A little after 7 p.m.: a late start, and the caucus chair called for any public letters or speeches to be made on behalf of any candidates. The vicarious performances were strange and unconvincing — one indication of how important a candidate’s own demeanor is to his or her message. The long speech read on behalf of Bill Richardson already felt too long — the Governor would receive just 2 percent of the vote tonight.
7:47 p.m.: the first count was underway, and the din was interrupted by a shout from the Obama corner: “172!” Thunderous applause from the bleachers. The people sitting there were not just taking a snooze; they were for Obama. Clinton had 72, Biden and Edwards were both almost viable in the 40’s, and the others were toast. (Their campaigns will most likely follow.)
By 7:48 p.m., one Obama staffer told another other that “the ‘boiler room,’” meaning some sort of headquarters, thought Obama was ahead throughout the state.
7:49 p.m.: one man walked across the gym floor to the Obama section to the tune of thunderous applause. It was starting to feel like a basketball game. “We are kicking ass,” one Obama staffer said, adamant that she remain off the record on that. (Celebratory profanity would resound throughout the evening among young Obamans).
7:58 p.m.: A volunteer sitting next to me in the observer section was getting CNN reports text-messaged to him on his cell phone. Huckabee had won the Republican caucuses, he told me.
8:02 p.m.: another couple crossed the gym for Obama, in what was becoming a slow exodus.
8:04 p.m.: the man who had spoken on behalf of Bill Richardson gave up the ship, heading over to the Biden corner.
8:05 p.m.: John Edwards would go on to place second in Iowa, but in this precinct, his corner had dissolved. Strangely enough, many Edwards supporters went to Joe Biden’s corner, and this was no better an indicator of the state-wide results. Several hours later, Biden’s presidential bid (along with Dodd’s) is over.
8:07 p.m.: the lone Kucinich supporter with the homemade sign (and something approximating a black trench-coat) got noticeably lighter applause as he followed Kucinich’s earlier instruction and joined the Obama ranks.
8:08 p.m.: the mess of people was taking shape. The Hillaries were in a horseshoe formation, counting off. The top Obama person at the caucus reminded me of those color war captains from summer camp as she pumped her fists, counted off her supporters, and just looked generally happy.
Then the final count was finished. Obama’s ranks had swelled to 185, and he would take the majority of delegates here in D63. Senator Biden managed one delegate in this precinct — but it was the last gasp of his presidential bid. Biden supporters were happy to have modestly succeeded here, but Obama was the talk of the evening.
“I like Obama,” Linda Goff, of Davenport, said, still sporting her Biden sticker after the caucus. “I just wish he’d waited a little longer to run.” By the time Linda got home, Biden’s campaign was over.
Later, in Des Moines, Obama would give a resounding answer to voters like Linda: “Our time for change has come,” he declared. Edwards, who came in second in Iowa with 30 percent, agreed: “The one thing that’s clear from this result here tonight is that the status quo lost and change won.” And Hillary Clinton, just behind at Edwards at 29 percent, sounded strangely similar, including all the Democrats as she declared: “Together we have presented the case for change.”

Taking it Outside, Deserving It

The overall feel at the caucus was excitement — especially from the Obama corner — and a politeness and decorum that would have made the founders of liberalism proud world-historical daddies.
In Kenya, where Barack Obama has relatives, the recent election has not proved so peaceful. Followers of the ethnically Luo oppositional candidate Raila Odinga will not concede the election to the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, who is ethnically Kikuyu, citing election fraud. The violence is increasing to a frantic level in what was one of the most stable countries in Africa. And a few days ago, up to 50 Kikuyu, mostly women and children, were burned alive inside a church by a mob of Luo and other tribes.
The Iowa caucuses, with their polite applause, give us one of those happy, peaceful American nights, where we watch (or ignore) the carnage across the world, and then snuggle up inside the heavily guarded borders of the United States. But one hopes the celebrations in Des Moines tonight are not a smug dance on the grave of Ethiopian democracy. After all, what good would our peaceful caucus democracy be if it still exported war to other regions of the world, and then failed to care where democracy was honestly failing?
Would we deserve to be this lucky?
At least at that after-party in Davenport, they weren’t just happy because they beat the other guys and girls; they were happy because, like many other voters around the country, they believed that their candidate really will change the world. And perhaps college partiers across the country can learn from these caucus after-partiers — they want to get down, but also to deserve their freedom.

Jeremy Siegman is a Sun columnist. He can be reached at jsiegman@cornellsun.com.