By early afternoon Friday, downtown Des Moines looked like just another medium-sized Midwestern city. A pile of leftover "Hillary" signs in the lobby of the Hotel Fort Des Moines appeared wan, a couple of out-of-staters wearing Obama buttons were smiling broadly, the last stranglers from the press pack (myself included) were moving like sleep-deprived zombies. Otherwise the frenzy of caucus night had already hardened into memory as the media cliches about friendly and trusting Iowans were replaced by TV hype about tweedy and crusty New Englanders.
Political reporters dance to the same Fleetwood Mac lyric as the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign: "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow." But in defiance of these journalistic dictates, I want to linger for a few beats on yesterday.
There is no rational defense for the Iowa caucuses (instead of an Iowa primary) until you have seen one. Watching the second-round maneuvering at Precinct 67 in Des Moines was probably as close as I will ever come to the political junkie fantasy of a second ballot at a national convention. (The last multi-ballot convention fight for president was in 1952). The caucus system in Iowa violates many dictums of modern democracy, particularly the secret ballot and the principle of "one person, one vote." But there is something inspiring in a corny patriotic way about watching Iowa Democrats plead for a few more supporters in a crowded room as the clock is ticking and the "Big Mo" awaits the winner.
By the way, the "Big Mo" is what a fella named George Bush claimed that he had after he won the 1980 Iowa caucuses.
My guess -- based on entrance polls (which had Clinton running second) and anecdotes -- is that John Edwards won second place because he had a better in-the-room operation than Hillary. In Precinct 67, Edwards snagged two delegates when the initial count did not entitle him to any. Multiply that by, say, 25 precincts around the state and you have the margin between Clinton and Edwards. A third- place finish for Edwards and he probably would not be in New Hampshire right now fighting for his political life.
As someone who has watched Edwards closely since 2001, I would like to dissent from the fast-forming conventional wisdom that the 2004 vice-presidential nominee lost in Iowa because his populist message was too harsh. Edwards lost because the fervor for Obama overwhelmed everything else in Iowa. In fact, since turnout was almost 100,000 greater than the Edwards campaign had anticipated, it says something that he still managed to run even with the Clinton machine.
And a final word about Iowa's runnerup: According to a statistic that I read in this morning's Des Moines Register, Obama spent more days in the state this year than supposedly Iowa-centric Edwards.
For all the attention lavished on strategies, TV spots and internal campaign tensions, there are moments when none of this behind-the-curtain stuff matters. Sometimes the right candidate hits the right wave at the right movement. That is what happened with Obama in Iowa. To rewrite that James Carville cliche from 1992: "It's the candidate, stupid."