JANUARY 2, 2008
There's obviously been a lot of discussion about whether the latest Des Moines Register poll is prescient or delusional. The skepticism arises not so much because Obama is leading, but because of why he's leading--namely, the unusually high number of non-Democrats and first-time caucusgoers (and, to a lesser extent, young people) the Register identifies as likely voters.
For what it's worth, I'm not ready to say the Register's turnout assumptions are crazy, though the skepticism is certainly warranted. I spent yesterday following an Obama canvasser named Monica Green, who's a precinct captain in Republican-leaning Ankeny, just north of Des Moines. The thing that makes Monica unusual for a Democratic precinct captain is that she herself is a lifelong Republican. She voted for Richard Nixon back in 1968, and for Bush in 2004, and most of the Republican nominees in between. But Obama piqued her interest during an interview he gave after this year's State of the Union address--"he rebutted Bush without being nasty"--and she got hooked when she saw him in Ames a few weeks later. Now she does crazy things like go canvassing in 8-degree weather.
Monica estimates she's been spending about two hours each day working for Obama, and much more than that on weekends. And yet she's one of those people who's going to have to change her party registration on caucus night.
Now, obviously, Monica could be a complete anomaly. After all, I got connected with her via the Obama campaign, which had an interest in showcasing its Republican support. But even if this was just some sort of ploy, it was a pretty persuasive one. Several of the Obama supporters on Monica's walk-list were Republicans and Independents. And, of the two families in those categories we actually spoke with (as with all canvassing efforts, many people just aren't home), both were absolutely adamant that they would caucus on Thursday. They also knew to show up early to change their party registration.
If nothing else, I was struck by how smart (if intuitive) it was to put a Republican like Monica in charge of her Republican-tilting precinct. After the mother in the Republican family--a forty-something woman named Rhonda--opened the door, one of the first things out of Monica's mouth was, "Don't I know you from church?" (She did.) There was also this shrewd exchange:
Monica: This is my first Democratic caucus...
Rhonda: Me, too!
Of course, Monica already knew this to be true thanks to demographic information provided by the campaign. But it was a nice way of establishing a connection. After that, Rhonda's 17-year-old son Jordan called out from the next room that he was caucusing for Obama, too.
My sense about people like Monica is that they've actually been Democrats for a long time, they just didn't know it. Monica told me she was increasingly concerned about the environment and wanted the war to end. She said she voted against Kerry in 2004, not for Bush. What kept her a Republican all those years, I think, was an unflattering mental image of who Democrats were--crusty union hacks and effete Northeastern elitists--which Obama shattered. It wouldn't shock me if there were lots more like her.