The Final Spectacle
By Dan Balz
AMES, Iowa - The New Year began with a rush here in Iowa. While the rest of the country woke up late with an eye on their television sets and all the bowl games (Go, Illini!), Iowans were out in big numbers well before noon to see the presidential candidates.
Hillary Clinton drew an overflow crowd at a hotel on the outskirts of Ames and was very much on her game. John Edwards, kicking off a 36-hour marathon of campaigning, had a packed house 10 minutes away from Clinton on the campus of Iowa State University to hear his populist message. Barack Obama began his day in Des Moines with a fired-up-ready-to-go rally that drew close to 1,000 people.
Clinton's concluding statement gave a sense of what all the candidates believe is at stake in two days. "This is the most important caucus that I think we've had in American as long as I can remember," she said.
A week ago, as I returned to Iowa after Christmas, I wrote that one big question all the campaigns were asking themselves was whether Iowans would be distracted by the holidays or paying attention to the closing arguments of the candidates.
That question was answered emphatically on the first day back and every day since. Certainly on the Democratic side, the crowds have been big, enthusiastic and energized -- as they have been for a year. Every candidate is knocked out by the size of the audiences they're seeing -- and each takes that as a sign that momentum is on their side.
"I don't need a poll to tell me we're moving and we're moving in the right way," Edwards said here in Ames.
What all this suggests is that turnout at the Democratic caucuses on Thursday night will be big -- but the million dollar question is just how big. And the inability of anyone to predict that with real accuracy makes the closing hours all the more uncertain.
Downtown Des Moines was packed last night with campaign staffers, volunteers, reporters and others and the talk and buzz was all about the final Iowa Poll from the Des Moines Register.
Historically, the Iowa Poll has been the gold standard in measuring sentiment before the caucuses. Which is why the final numbers on both sides -- but particularly the Democratic race -- created a stir. The poll showed Obama leading with 32 percent, followed by Clinton at 25 and Edwards at 24.
The results did not square with what all the campaigns had been peddling to reporters for days or what the campaign events for the candidates suggested - that the race was too close to call and could go any which way on Thursday night.
Advisers to Edwards and Clinton quickly sought to challenge the poll's methodology, particularly the percentage of independents projected to attend the caucuses. The Clinton camp in particular argued that the turnout model used by the Register was faulty. Obama's advisers, after displaying signs of nervousness for several days, seized on the results and emailed them out to supporters within hours of their release.
The issue is not unimportant. Clinton was leading Obama among Democrats, 33 percent to 27 percent, with Edwards at 25 percent. But Obama had a huge lead, 39 percent to Clinton's 15 percent, with Edwards at 24 percent. A huge influx of independents clearly favors Obama.
Among older voters, Clinton led with Edwards second and Obama father back in third. Historically older voters dominate the caucuses. If that proves the case again this year, Obama's chances are diminished.
By this morning, two other polls had been released showing a much different race. A CNN/Opinion Research poll showed a dead heat between Clinton and Obama with Edwards trailing. A Zogby poll showed Clinton with a narrow lead and Obama and Edwards in a virtual tie.
By noon they were all a distant memory.
The campaign's scrum over the polls was predictable. Perception can become reality. It can shape what undecided voters see and hear through the media in the final hours of a tough campaign, which can translate into momentum-driven decision-making by undecided voters.
There are reasons to be skeptical of all the polls right now. And the reality is that the campaign is moving so swiftly here right now that last night's poll or this morning's polls are quickly pushed to the background, overtaken by the intensity of the candidate's schedules and the grindingly efficient get-out-the-vote operations that are beginning to kick in campaign offices across the state.
Edwards advisers report that, in their nightly calls, half of the undecided voters are breaking their way, with the rest splitting slightly more for Clinton than Obama. The Obama campaign believes that a big turnout on Thursday would turn those Register numbers into reality.
Clinton's campaign has sampled and modeled the potential electorate to the point that they have begun to knock off their calculations voters who say they support Clinton but who the campaign doubts will actually show up on Thursday night.
The candidates are now in their own grooves. Edwards is so focused on his anti-corporate message that when he got a question asking whether he would consider including Colin Powell in his administration, he hesitated and asked, "Did you say Colin Powell or coal and power?"
These last hours in Iowa belong to the candidates and to the voters - not the pollsters or the media. While the rest of the country enjoys football, the candidates and the voters of Iowa will revel in their own spectacle. And what a spectacle it has become.
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