DES MOINES, Iowa — Only half the votes had been counted, but the victory party of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was well under way.
Kerry supporters decided to celebrate their candidate’s success in Monday night’s Iowa caucuses long before all the results were tallied by the Iowa Democratic Party. Whooping cheers erupted as Kerry backers piled into a rowdy banquet hall at the downtown Hotel Fort Des Moines throughout the evening.
Kerry, who was dubbed “the Comeback Kid” by fellow Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and several jubilant staffers after it appeared he would win the caucuses, received 38 percent of the vote, with 98 percent of Iowa precincts reporting Monday night.
More than 100,000 Iowans battled single-digit temperatures to attend nearly 2,000 precinct caucuses, which began at 6:30 p.m. in school gymnasiums and church basements across the state.
Des Moines resident and first-time caucus participant Penni Guyler hugged Vietnam veteran Chuck Shelabarger, who served as a precinct captain Monday night, and the two screamed, “Baby, we did it!”
“I was going to be happy with a third-place finish,” said Guyler, who called Kerry the best candidate to beat President Bush in the November general election. “Just because he doesn’t look like he’s going to win is no reason to count him out.”
In polls released just a few weeks ago, Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who came in second Monday night with 33 percent of the vote, trailed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, both of whom had been called the frontrunners in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential contest.
But Dean garnered just 18 percent of the vote, a distant third, and Gephardt finished fourth, which led him to suggest Monday night that he would consider dropping out of the race.
Weinberg sophomore Lauren Lowenstein, who volunteered for the Gephardt campaign in Davenport, Iowa, over the weekend, said she had no regrets about working for the campaign.
“Today is hard for all of us,” said Lowenstein, who still supports Gephardt, Communication ’62. “Northwestern should be proud to have Dick Gephardt as a graduate.”
But Kenneth Janda, a political science professor emeritus at NU, called Gephardt’s fourth-place finish the real surprise out of the Hawkeye State on Monday night.
“A man who locked up so much labor support found his support almost evaporating,” Janda said. “Eleven percent is not very good for someone who won the state before” during his 1988 presidential bid.
A fifth candidate, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, received just 1 percent of caucus-goers’ support. The Edwards and Kucinich campaigns earlier in the day had agreed to share support in any precinct where either candidate failed to achieve the minimum viability level.
A half-hour after the caucus voting commenced, voters were told to separate into sides of the caucus room designated for each candidate. Supporters for candidates who could not obtain 15 percent of the vote were forced to line up for another contender.
With almost 1,000 Iowans showing up to the three precincts at Merrill Middle School in West Des Moines, cars parked anywhere they could fit — on curbs, in driveways and even on the school’s muddy football field.
At the precinct site, Des Moines resident Irene Erickson, 72, originally aligned herself with Gephardt. But when he failed to achieve the 15 percent margin, she refused to join another group.
“I’m shocked Gephardt isn’t doing better here,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s because the weather is cold or because union leaders couldn’t get voters out.”
Erickson’s political woes turned personal when her husband, an avid Edwards backer, pleaded with her to come to his corner.
Instead, in the face of certain defeat, she stood her ground and walked out.
The Daily’s Laurel Jorgensen, Jordana Mishory and Jerome C. Pandell contributed to this story from Des Moines.