Monday, December 31, 2007

Why Barack Obama Will Win The Iowa Caucuses

(Editor's Note: The following commentary by Iowa Independent fellow Douglas Burns first appeared in the Carroll (Iowa) Daily Times Herald, a newspaper owned by his family, on Monday. A subsequent poll released on New Year's Day by The Des Moines Register provides statistical evidence to back up Burns' analysis.)

(Commentary) Iowans, for a change, are about the select the smartest person in the room.

I expect Barack Obama to win the Democratic Iowa presidential caucuses Thursday night. He has succeeded in turning lightning in a bottle, that transcendent speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, into an enduring legacy and boots-on-the-ground effective campaign in Iowa.

The moment I thought I knew Obama would win the Iowa caucuses came nearly a year ago.

At 10:12 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 10, near the steps of the historic old state capitol in the gritty Midwestern city of Springfield, Ill., the post Baby Boom generation and all those dog tired of the Bush-Clinton politics of gratuitous self-absorption, had their man.

The phenomenon known as Barack Obama entered this 2008 race for the presidency of the United States that day and suggested that like another Illinois politician with relatively little experience before the White House, he too, could heal a fractured nation.

"The life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible," Obama said in that speech. "He tells us that there is power in words."

The power of words. That is something Obama understands in a way no other politician in America does today. It's revealed in the connection he makes with crowds. He's had the biggest in Carroll this political cycle.

After walking from the old Illinois state capitol grounds in senses-numbing cold back to my car that February day, I kept my coat on until well past Peoria, thawing out on the western ride back toward Carroll, all the while rolling Obama's words over and over, wondering if he could take that momentum across the Mississippi, the history I had witnessed on frozen feet, and mix it up in our small towns.

As it turns out, he could.

Obama doesn't sound false notes. Growing up without a father, he is the amalgamation of many male influences and ultimately the product of his own journey of self-discovery. He is that rare person who truly understands himself, and no doubt sees parts of that self in all of us. We get this in Iowa because we are all about authenticity. There aren't that many of us in Iowa so you can't escape into the anonymity of the streets. You are at once known and accoutable -- which is the beauty of holding the caucuses here.

The national media and pollsters don't live where I do (Carroll, Iowa). When the story is told on Thursday night, the narrative will be a remarkable one: Obama will cobble together western Iowa counties with ivory towered college towns and eastern cities within the shadow of his Illinois. What's more, while he is running a tight race with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards with traditional voters, Obama will pull ahead with new people, not just the young, but the never-before caucus-goers. I see their faces in the crowds. They are the woman I went to high school with who stunned me by appearing, waving a Barack Obama sign, no less, at one of his events in Carroll. Surely, she must have an "American Idol" re-run to watch, I thought. No, she's caucusing for Obama.

Here's another reason Obama will do well in western Iowa (and win the whole thing): Democrats listen to their Republican friends and family. They know who has the best shot against the Republicans in a general election -- an instinct a recent Zogby Poll bears out by showing Obama beating all GOP presidential candidates.

Don't take it from me, though. Living in heavily Republican territory in Sac County, Marjie Sands, a nurse, joked that she doesn't visit often about politics with her friends and colleagues. That said, when the matter does arise, she hears more negative comments from Republicans about Clinton than Obama.

"My husband's a very staunch Republican," Sands said.

And who does he dislike more?

"I think Clinton," she said.

One very much underappreciated dynamic in this race is that among the leading Democratic contenders Obama is the Midwesterner. Hillary is New York slick and Edwards is a Southern-fried pol who delivered a speech so populist in tone Sunday that I suspected he might leave Carroll High School, cross the street and march with a torched mob on the more well-to-do Collison Addition of our town.

Yes, we are a largly white state, and sure, it goes without saying that when Barack Obama is on the television screen or behind the political podium we see a black man.

That is, after all, what he is.

But when you listen to Obama, the substance of thinking, the cadence of his reasoning, his unassuming acceptance of people, you hear a Midwesterner.

"What I see in Iowa are a lot the qualities I love in Illinois," Obama told me in an interview. "I think there's a truth to the idea that there's a Midwestern sensibility and that people don't like a lot of fuss, don't like a lot of pretense, and I think are much more likely to think about things pragmatically and how do you get the job done as opposed to having a lot of ideology driving decision-making. And I think that's what America needs right now."

Obama has shown me something in this race. He fielded some tough questions from me on his admitted past drug use, absorbed a story I wrote that a leading Washington journalist termed "devastating," and kept doing interviews with me. No shut outs. He gamely continued doing an interview as I hounded him with questions about foreign policy experience. As much as I respect Obama I am reminded of the lessons of the early days of the Bush Administration, when a press corps starstruck with its access (I have interviewed Obama six times) didn't ask the hard questions for fear of losing those exclusives, the coin of the realm in this business.

Knowing full well that the national media often builds and then crashes public figures Obama says he views the headlines and hoopla (and to his credit, the criticisms) as transitory.

But even when Obama does take broadsides and carefully crafted insults, the inevitable slings and arrows of politics at the highest level, he will retain a rare connectivity to voters. He understands people, not because, as Bill Clinton, he feels their pain in some abstract Baby Boomerish sense.

This generational change is what those undecided voters will gravitate toward on Thursday. Yes, the 1990s were better than the George W. Bush days. But like in some mend-bending physics test question are we to think we must go back to go forward? Or do we just damn the torpedoes and go with a real change?

Referencing President Clinton's legendary argument that he tried marijuana but didn't inhale, an audience member in Audubon one late November night asked Obama if, "Unlike other presidents, did you in-hale?"

"I did," Obama said. "It's not something that I'm proud of. It was a mistake ... But you know, I'm not going to ... I never understood that line. The point was to inhale. That was the point."

Who else would dare to say that? Who else could get away with laying the truth out there?

With that answer, Obama closed the deal with hundreds of southwest Iowans weary of equivocation, people who just want the truth, warts and all.

In an interview, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin compared crowd responses to Obama to what Harkin saw in 1968 with Bobby Kennedy.

Many people who attend Obama events make the Bobby Kennedy analogy, including people who saw Obama speak at Harkin's own steak fry last fall, I observed to Harkin.

"It's amazing," Harkin said. "I said the same thing to people. I'd just gotten out of the military and come back to Iowa in '68 and Bobby Kennedy came through Iowa and I was there and watched it. You're right, I haven't seen anything like that since, until Obama, just the way people draw into him. It's a very, very interesting dynamic there."

And on Thursday, it will be a winning one for Obama.


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newbeginnings said...

Your insight into Barack Obama's magnetism is, I think, exactly to the point. His background, demeanor and general openness speaks very clearly to the majority of the population who have become jaded to the soundbite nation we are all accustomed to. is following his progress in the Iowa Caucus, and the debate surrounding the various candidates. We would appreciate your feedback or comments as the election continues.