The Fullness of Spring

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"Tonight, in the fullness of spring, with the help of those who stood up from Portland to Louisville, we have returned to Iowa with a majority of delegates elected by the American people, and you have put us within reach of the Democratic nomination for president of the United States."

-- Barack Obama, May 20, 2008, Des Moines, Iowa

As the Obama plane lands in Florida and the Sunshine State regards the Illinois senator for the first time in eight months as a candidate and likely Democratic nominee, a few observations on the Iowa victory party.

Iowa tells the tale of this nomination battle in three ways.

First, it explains what Obama won there and what Hillary Clinton lost. Most tangibly and tragically for Clinton, she lost an investment of between $20 million and $25 million in pursuit of a victory that turned into a near-game-ending third place finish. On the day Clinton won big in Kentucky and her campaign reported raising $22 million in April (a fulsome amount for an effort hamstrung by weeks of dour or dismissive press coverage), the fine print revealed the wreckage Iowa wrought so long ago.

Clinton's now nearly $31 million dollars in debt. If you subtract the $11 million in Clinton loans, the costly Iowa misadventure appears the central cause of the debt crisis. A $20 million to $25 million investment in an Iowa victory would have reaped enormous dividends and ended this campaign far earlier with Clinton as the nominee. Her loss not only blew a hole in her finances, leaving her far less capable of sustaining a wire-to-wire contest the likes of which Obama always knew he would have to wage to win.

Clinton's Iowa loss inflicted other costs in prestige, confidence, morale and purpose. It took a strong candidate with gumption and true leadership skills to rally the troops after Iowa and withstand the post-Iowa body blow of 12 consecutive defeats (a by-product of a strategy that bet heavily on Iowa and assumed deal-sealing victories on Super Tuesday).

In the fullness of time, Clinton emerged as just such a leader and much of America (save ardent Obama followers) came to see her, albeit too late, as more compassionate, human and likable than the lacquered figure of imperial entitlement they saw when the campaign began.

The second part of the Iowa story is what it taught Obama, his campaign, and most important of all, those who have come to support him. Iowa was an abstraction at first. As Obama said Tuesday night, expectations were low but possibilities were high. The candidate had to ignite a movement, his staff had to attract worker bees to sustain it and voters had to see within it a promise more powerful than the unexcitable (Clinton) or preferred (John Edwards began Iowa the race solidly ahead). All three things happened and important lessons were learned:

-- Grassroots organizing at the community level can change minds and deliver votes.

-- Technology can simplify fund-raising and minimize day-to-day costs allowing young staff to make decisions and get instant feedback from higher-ups as both ends adjusted to circumstances on the ground.

-- The campaign could unleash the directed energy of young voters to do more than pass around e-mails and hunt for hook-ups. Top Obama advisers had no tolerance for merely "attracting" the young. They demanded work, lots of glamorless trench work and found, as they suspected, the slacker generation was more myth than reality.

-- The campaign also saw its gauzy belief in "new politics" vindicated. Obama rose without resorting to the hour-by-hour attacks and counter-attacks familiar in most early presidential campaigns. His cool demeanor and confidence created a sort of contagion among his followers that, indeed, something was happening here.

This had a near-paralyzing effect on Clinton and Edwards as they both ruled against direct and negative attacks on Obama, fearing a backlash. Instead, Clinton changed the slogans and optics of her campaign almost weekly down the stretch and Edwards hardened his attacks and so narrowed his populist message he had no room to increase the size of his following to match Obama's.

That brings us to the third thing Iowa did for Obama. It proved he could remake the mathematics of politics by expanding the known universe. It's easy to forget now, but Iowa's caucuses night turnout shattered every record and left veterans of the process as dumb-founded as if they had seen Martians buying Slurpees and Slim Jims at the Kwik-Stop.

By Clinton's own caucus projected turnout models, she would have won with the people she moved on caucuses night. But she finished a catastrophic third. She hit her mark dead-on and failed miserably. Edwards exceeded his turnout projection substantially and still lost by 8 points.

Obama's Iowa win set in motion a turnout phenomenon that has continued throughout this race and now gives his campaign something bordering on supreme confidence it can win in November.

Obama's camp believes it understands the the reservoir of untapped voter enthusiasm better than anyone. They believe it because they explored it first, found its depth, navigated its turbulent parts and charted a course as a genuine new explorer often does. This will strike some as arrogance. But politics makes no room for misguided arrogance. In fact it crushes it.

Politics rewards seeing things differently, finding ways to turn that vision into a practical vote-by-vote, block-by-block, county-by-county, state-by-state constituency. If you don't believe me, ask Karl Rove.

Obama learned how to do something fundamentally different in Iowa by literally remaking the caucus map. It is why he believes he can remake the electoral college map. Iowa is not America, but in this race it gave America a compelling look at an unknown candidate with a new approach and a tenacious desire to make it work.

That it did in Iowa is a debt Obama owes to that state and it owes to Obama. And that is what brought the two back together in the fullness of spring.