DES MOINES — While most of the media coverage coming out of tonight’s Iowa caucuses will focus on the winning candidates in each party, the real story will be the extent to which Democratic turnout swamps Republican participation.
In 2006, Democrats swept into power because their energized base overwhelmed dispirited Republicans, and independents were eager for change. Already lagging behind Democrats on the fundraising front, tonight the GOP will likely get another stark reminder that these fundamentals have not changed.
Every bit of anecdotal evidence points to a massive enthusiasm gap between the two parties, with the possibility that the participation of Democrats in the caucuses will exceed that of Republicans by nearly a two-to-one margin. This even though the Democratic caucus process is much more complicated, requiring two hours of their voters’ time.
Democratic candidates have routinely drawn larger and more boisterous crowds than their Republican counterparts in events throughout the state. This was apparent in the evenings leading up to the caucuses, when candidates in both parties held their final large rallies in the Des Moines area.
ON TUESDAY NIGHT, Republican frontrunner Mike Huckabee strummed his bass guitar and shared the stage with action hero Chuck Norris at an event at the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines (site of the notorious Howard Dean scream).
By the time I got there, the parking lot was full, and I had to park at an overflow lot across the street. The large ballroom inside was crowded, and Huckabee announced that more than 2,000 people were in attendance (though this was likely an exaggeration).
The following night, John Edwards held his final rally at the same venue featuring singer John Mellencamp. When I arrived, not only was the overflow lot full, but so were the lots of the local bowling alley, a pawn shop, and much of the True Value hardware store.
I ended up having to park outside a Long John Silver’s a five minute walk away.
Once I got inside, I noticed a crowd that was far larger than the one Huckabee drew the night before. At the Huckabee event, one could walk around the ballroom without much problem, but at the Edwards event, attendees were packed together shoulder to shoulder.
In fact, one could have taken all of the attendees from Mitt Romney’s Caucus Eve rally at the Hy-Vee Conference Center and combined them with the Huckabee crowd, and it would have been a smaller turnout than for the Edwards event.
IT’S NOT JUST the top-tier candidates. Last Friday, Fred Thompson visited Ottumwa, where the local paper endorsed him, and drew a crowd of about 40. On Wednesday, Joe Biden drew double that at an event at an elementary school library in the same town.
During the question and answer session following Biden’s formal remarks, one attendee neatly encapsulated the sentiment of many in his party: “I want the Democrats to win so bad I can taste it.”
David Axlerod, Barack Obama’s chief strategist, told me Wednesday night that turnout on the Democratic side could be around 150,000, which would represent a 20 percent increase from the record attendance of 2004.
“We think that it is self evident that with all this activity, and all this ferment, that it’s going to be larger than what we’ve seen before,” Axlerod said.
Republicans, on the other hand, may see turnout south of the 86,000 that they generated during their last contested caucus in 2000. That year, when then-Governor George W. Bush won a convincing victory, participation was higher among Republicans.
Especially troubling for Republicans is that only one-third of self-described independents in the latest Des Moines Register poll said they planned to vote in a Republican caucus, compared to two-thirds who expected to participate on the Democratic side. While somebody has to be a registered Democrat to vote in that party’s caucus, voters can change their registration on caucus night.
No matter what the outcome of the nomination battle, Democrats are so hungry to take back the White House that they’ll rally around whichever candidate triumphs.
For Republicans, it isn’t that simple. At this point in time, it’s difficult to see how any Republican candidate can emerge from the messy nominating process to unify the party.