Beliefnet
Casting Stones

The Iowa caucuses delivered a pair of dramatic upsets as Barack Obama, just three years into his first Senate term, racked up a strong first-place finish while the once seemingly inevitable Hillary Clinton finished third and as Mike Huckabee bested Mitt Romney, a candidate who outspent him four-to-one in the state, in a decisive first victory. Perhaps even more telling about what the year ahead holds politically was a stark difference in turnout, with almost 221,000 Democrats going to the caucuses–compared to 124,000 four years ago–while just 124,000 Republicans turned out in what has traditionally been a Republican state.
For Obama, his win was a confirmation of a campaign strategy built largely on bringing new voters into the electoral system after Howard Dean’s campaign, run on a similar premise, went up in smoke in Iowa 2004 when the more establishment John Kerry triumphed there. Entrance polls found that a majority of Democratic caucus goers said this was the first caucus they’d attended, with Obama taking a plurality of those voters–41 percent–though Clinton took 29-percent of that vote. The same polls showed that half of Democrats cited “change” as the top quality they were looking for in a candidate, with Obama winning a bare majority of those voters, many more than any Democratic rival.
Though Clinton took half the votes of Democratic caucus goers who said “experience” was the most important quality in a candidate, more than any other Democratic candidate, only one in five voters ranked experience as their top priority. Those returns raise questions about Clinton’s path to the nomination.
John Edwards came in second in the Democratic race, with 30-percent of the vote compared to 29-percent for Clinton and 38-percent for Barack Obama. With Edwards’s fundraising and organization greatly overshadowed by those of Clinton and Obama, his campaign was staked on a first-place finish in Iowa. The Democratic race going forward is likely to quickly consolidate into a two-way contest between Obama and Clinton.
Picking virtually no support in the caucuses, Democratic senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden and former Senator Mike Gravel announced their withdrawal from the race shortly after results came in.
On the Republican side, the caucuses had much less of a winnowing effect. Taking 34-percent of the vote compared to 25-percent for Romney, Huckabee’s decisive victory wasn’t enough to blunt questions about his viability going forward, given his comparatively skeletal campaign operation and given that New Hampshire, which casts its ballots on Tuesday, is home to only a fraction of the evangelical Christians responsible for Huckabee’s Iowa victory. A whopping 60-percent of Republican caucus goers in Iowa identified as evangelical or born again Christian, with half those votes going to Huckabee, compared to 19-percent for Mitt Romney.
With 85-percent of precincts reporting, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson and Arizona Senator John McCain were tied for third place, each claiming 13-percent of the vote. Already polling strongly in New Hampshire, a McCain victory there could would be a potentially insurmountable setback for Romney, since his campaign was designed around early state victories.
Rudy Giuliani, whose campaign largely ignored Iowa, nonetheless raised eyebrows by snagging a dismal 4-percent of the vote.