DES MOINES, IOWA — Walking the halls of Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, the excitement was palpable. Large lines of Iowans streamed back as far as the entrances as they waited to get into the three precinct caucuses being held in the school. Many who had caucused here before said turnout was much higher than in 2008, which had unprecedented participation.
The school was hosting caucuses for the 43rd, 44th, and 45th precincts in Des Moines. These areas are a solid mix of people—blue-collar workers, middle class, young, old, and largely Democratic.
At the 44th precinct location, in the high school’s cavernous auditorium, there were clearly more supporters for Sanders than for Clinton, but the overall turnout was what surprised many of those who showed up.
“It reminds me of the ’60s, back when we had some hope,” one woman told me. Though she was supporting Clinton she was impressed by the number of young supporters coming out for Bernie.
The 44th precinct caucus—due to huge numbers—didn’t get started until around 7:45 p.m., though the official time was listed as 7:00. Then the counting of caucus-goers began, with big cheers every time another hundred people were counted. The final count was more than 500 people.
Then the respective groups counted their ranks—Sanders had 289 supporters and Clinton had 190. O’Malley failed to garner the 15 percent support required to be “viable.”
In one of the tenser moments of the caucus, the precinct captain, who was a Hillary backer, tried to convince the other camps to spare some people in order to get O’Malley over the threshold. People in both crowds shouted “No!” seeing no benefit in keeping O’Malley in the running.
Eventually some folks moved to the O’Malley section, though in the end it wasn’t enough. One O’Malley supporter I talked to before the caucus began said he thought the former Maryland governor was the only electable candidate—he worried about the term “socialist” coming up in the general election, and he worried about Hillary’s integrity.
When O’Malley was officially deemed unviable, the supporter walked out, not wanting to back either of the other candidates. Most of the other O’Malley caucus-goers flocked to Clinton or Sanders.
In the end, Sanders won five delegates to Clinton’s four and the Sanders crowd erupted into sustained cheers.
Clinton won the 43rd, which had an older crowd, while Sanders won the 45th, which was younger, by 4 to 2. Final count for Roosevelt High School gave Sanders 14 delegates and Clinton 10.
As of this writing, with 96 percent of the precincts reporting, Clinton and Sanders were virtually tied, with 49.9 and 49.6, respectively. That didn’t stop either candidate from claiming a victory of sorts.
At a post-caucus rally at Drake University in Des Moines, Clinton told a big crowd of supporters that she was “breathing a sigh of relief.” She went on to say that she was a “progressive who gets things done.”
On the other side of town, at a hotel convention center near the Des Moines airport, things got rather ugly at Sanders’s rally. His supporters loudly booed when Clinton came on to the screen that was broadcasting the latest updates. As she called herself “a progressive,” chants of “She’s a liar” ramped up. One man yelled “Turn her off!” There was palpable anger at Clinton as MSNBC described her speech as a declaration of victory.
The mood quickly turned though as Clinton’s speech ended and “Bernie” chants began. A few minutes later the crowd erupted when the Sanders, joined by family, came out to speak. His campaign, too, was claiming victory, saying a comeback a 41-point deficit early in the race was a testament to Sanders’s call for a political revolution.
“Nine months ago, we had no political organization, we had no money, we had no name recognition, and we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the country,” Sanders told the crowd. “Tonight, while the results are still not known, it looks like we are in a virtual tie.”
In fact, both campaigns got what they needed. Clinton may well be able to claim to a win, however infinitesimal, in Iowa, while Sanders was able to prove that his young supporters can actually turn out.
But while Clinton’s small lead gives some cover for the campaign, there is no denying that she leaves Iowa in difficult straits. Yet again, as she proceeds to New Hampshire, where Sanders has a decisive lead in the polls, Clinton’s path to the White House appears to be filled with more obstacles than she had expected.