Broad interest in "change" among Democrats and overwhelming Republican turnout by evangelicals spelled victory for a pair of insurgents in Thursday's Iowa caucuses, opening the 2008 election cycle with a boom.
Young voters, independents and first-time caucus-goers lifted Barack Obama to victory, along with his theme of a new direction in politics. Remarkably, he even beat Hillary Clinton among women.
While a range of factors rumbled through the Democratic race, the Republican contest was essentially about one thing: religion. Evangelical Christians accounted for a remarkable six in 10 GOP caucus-goers, and they favored Huckabee, a Baptist minister, over Mitt Romney, who's Mormon, by a broad 46-19 percent.
Among the remaining, non-evangelical Republican voters, by contrast, only about one in seven supported Huckabee, and Romney won easily, with 33 percent. In this group John McCain had 18 percent support, Fred Thompson 17 percent, Huckabee 14 percent.
That raises the question of how well Huckabee's appeal can travel. There are far fewer evangelicals in some other states, notably New Hampshire; and their share in the Iowa caucuses, a low-turnout event in which a highly motivated group can have a large impact, may be hard to replicate elsewhere.
In the Democratic contest, "change" was a huge factor; 52 percent of caucus-goers said the most important candidate characteristic to was bringing "needed change," more than twice the size of the next most-desired attribute. Obama won them by 2-1, with 51 percent support in this group to 20 percent for Edwards and 19 percent for Clinton.
Clinton came back strongly among those who called experience the most important candidate characteristic, with 49 percent support, to 20 percent for Bill Richardson, 9 percent for Edwards and just 5 percent for Obama. Edwards, for his part, did well on empathy; among those who said it mattered most, he won 44 percent support, compared with 24 percent for Obama and 22 percent for Clinton. But the sheer size of the vote for change overwhelmed those results.
These findings are from the network-sponsored entrance poll in Iowa, which measured preferences of voters as they headed into their caucuses. That does not reflect final results in the Democratic race, because Democratic rules have supporters of non-competitive candidates pick a second choice. Obama, as it turns out, won both initial and final preferences; Clinton and Edwards were essentially tried for second place in final choices.
There was a vast generation gap in the Democratic race, with younger voters very broadly for Obama while Clinton did best by far among seniors. Among all caucus-goers under age 45, a smashing 50 percent supported Obama, compared with just 17 percent for Edwards and 16 percent for Clinton.
Among those under 30, Obama went even higher, to 57 percent. Among seniors, by contrast -- nearly a quarter of participants -- it was Clinton 45 percent, Edwards 22, Obama 18. But turnout by young adults was up; the share of caucus goers under age 30 has increased from 9 percent of participants in 2000 to 17 percent in 2004 and 22 percent this year. Turnout among seniors was down by 5 points from 2004, to 22 percent.
Obama also won by a very sizable margin among independents, about a fifth of caucus goers, with 41 percent support to Edwards' 23 percent and Clinton's 17 percent.
Not unlike Huckabee's support from evangelicals, Obama's strength among young voters and independents represents challenge as well as opportunity for him; as a general rule, young adults don't turn out as reliably as their elders, and turnout by independents in Democratic primaries is not always high (indeed, depending on the state, not always allowed). An exception, though, is New Hampshire, where independents participate in very large numbers. It votes Tuesday.
Perhaps most remarkable in the Democratic contest was the result among women, the group to which Clinton has owed her lead in national polls. In Iowa, Obama beat Clinton by 35 percent to 30 percent among women. He did better still among men, with 35 percent support, to 24 percent for Edwards and 23 percent for Clinton.
Obama also won whites, by a six-point margin, 33-27 percent over Clinton; they accounted for 93 percent of Democratic caucus-goers. In another challenge to Clinton, while she has polled competitively among blacks nationally, Obama won blacks in Iowa with 72 percent support, his single best group. And there are more African-American voters in many other states (New Hampshire is an exception) than in Iowa.
In the Republican race, other ways to view the outcome all come back to the prism of religion. Thirty-six percent said it mattered "a great deal" that a candidate share their religious belief, and Huckabee won 56 percent of them, with Romney and McCain far behind at 11 percent each. No wonder: Eighty-five percent in this group were evangelicals.
By contrast, among those who said sharing religious belief was not important -- about a third of Republican caucus-goers -- Romney won 39 percent, Huckabee just 11 percent.
Huckabee beat Romney by wide margins among voters who cared most about a candidate who "shares my values" (44-26 percent) or who "says what he believes" (33-14 percent, a particular weakness for Romney) -- but in both cases, only among evangelicals who said so.
For his part, Romney -- who campaigned the longest and spent the most in Iowa -- beat Huckabee by even wider margins among those who cared most about the candidate who has the right experience (37-9 percent) or who has the best chance to win in November (51-8 percent). But these were much smaller groups.
There also was a generation gap in the Republican contest; among participants under age 45, Huckabee had 39 percent support, Romney just 22 percent. Seniors, meanwhile, divided about evenly between the two.
Another notable result in the Republican race was that turnout among conservatives was well up - they accounted for 88 percent of GOP caucus-goers, up from 73 percent in 2000. That included 45 percent "very conservative," up from 34 percent in 2000. Again, it's about evangelicals, who were substantially more likely to identify themselves as conservatives. If bitter for Romney, the result also wasn't ideal for John McCain, who'd reached in the closing days for clear third place in Iowa but didn't get there, running neck and neck with Fred Thompson. McCain did best with Republican caucus-goers who favored experience and whose top issues were the war in Iraq and terrorism, and he found strong support among moderates and independents. But these were relatively small groups.
Back to the Democratic race, late deciders were particularly poor for Clinton; among those who made up their minds the final days, Obama won 32 percent, Edwards, 27, Clinton just 20. And in a contest in which turnout was seen as crucial, first-time caucus goers, who accounted for 57 percent of Democratic participants, favored Obama, 41 percent, over Clinton, 29 percent, or Edwards, 18 percent. Among repeat attenders, Edwards led slightly.
Beyond Obama's victory, further damage was done to Clinton by her extremely close contest with Edwards in final (more so than initial) preferences. The reason was that people who supported non-competitive candidates went disproportionately away from Clinton for their second choice.
The entrance poll found that among those caucus-goers, about a third each went for Obama or Edwards as second choice, vs. 14 percent staying "uncommitted" and just 11 percent for Clinton -- another rebuke to the national front-runner.
Contributing to this story were Rich Morin, Bob Shapiro, Peyton Craighill, Pat Moynihan and Brian Hartman.