WASHINGTON – Organization, organization, organization is the time-honored key to victory in the Iowa caucuses according to political pundits, but this year's Democratic presidential contest cast a new light on the conventional wisdom.
"Traditional lore says organization counts for everything, but that wisdom was born in a time when not that many people showed up at caucuses," David Yepsen, Des Moines Register (search) political columnist, told Fox News.
"The strong turnout for the Iowa caucuses casts doubt on traditional assumptions. I think it changes the emphasis on organization," he said.
"You can organize and you can organize, but if the support isn’t there it doesn’t matter," said Susan Estrich, former campaign manager for Michael Dukakis, who placed third in the 1988 Iowa caucuses but won the nomination to take on George H.W. Bush.
Party officials said Monday night's attendance was on par to match the record set in 1988 when 125,000 voters participated in the Democratic contest. The caucuses started late in many of the state's 1,997 precinct locations as election workers tried to accommodate the large volume of people. Democrats ran out of registration forms at one precinct in Iowa City; at least 100 people were lined up outside a school waiting to get in as the voting was set to begin.
In 2000, just 61,000 Democrats turned out at the caucuses.
"Everybody in this state is talking about this," Yepsen said of caucus night. "This is the thing to do for many Iowans. That sort of may diminish the importance of organization if you have a lot of people spontaneously going out for John Edwards or John Kerry."
In fact, popular support appeared to have much more impact on Monday night's caucuses than organization.
Sens. John Kerry (search) and John Edwards (search) were both said to have relatively weak campaign structures. But Kerry won with 38 percent while Edwards, who broke late in polling over the last two weeks, surged well ahead of one-time front-runner Howard Dean to take 32 percent of the vote. Dean, who was said to have one of the best-run organizations ever on the ground in Iowa, came in a distant third with 18 percent.
Dick Gephardt, whose organization was also said to be strong, came in fourth with 11 percent of the vote, not enough to reach the 15 percent threshold needed to earn delegates to the convention. Gephardt dropped out of the campaign after his weak showing.
Edwards' outcome was so unexpected that he did not even need the help offered to him by Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who had earlier brokered a deal with Edwards that if either of them did not reach the cut-off, their supporters would be encouraged to join forces and back the candidate with the larger group of supporters.
Kucinich earned 1 percent of Monday night's vote.
Conventional wisdom also fell flat when it came to predicting who would get popular support. With a population of 2.9 million in Iowa, about a half million voters are registered Democrats. Voters must be registered to participate in the caucuses, but participants can change their registration at the caucus site.
Activist Democrats are traditionally the most anti-Republican voters. Yet, Dean's rhetoric, which was considerably harsher on President Bush than the other candidates, again did not seem to draw the type of expected support. According to entrance polls, Dean, who has been pumping an anti-war message, lost the margin of anti-war supporters to Kerry, 24 to 34 percent.
Still, experts said anti-Bush voters made up a large part of Monday night's electorate.
"Democrats are energized. They're energized by their great desire to beat George Bush," said National Public Radio political correspondent Mara Liasson, a Fox News contributor.
"Democrats don't like Bush. They don’t like him personally. They don’t like his policies. And then you’ve got these candidates coming here and reminding them again and again and again about why they don’t like him and they want to beat him so they're coming out. They're turned on," said Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call (search).
The Iowa caucuses have had mixed results in terms of predicting a nominee. In 1975-1976, after campaigning extensively in Iowa, Jimmy Carter was launched to victory. However, in 1980 George Bush upset Ronald Reagan, and in 1988 Gephardt and former Sen. Bob Dole each won, only to see their candidacies snuffed out shortly thereafter.