SEATTLE and DENVER- Maggie Everett, a language arts teacher at Seattle's Roosevelt High School, was hardly surprised to discover Feb. 8 that nearly half of her junior and senior students had cut class for the day. The five o'clock news confirmed her intuition as to where they wound up.
More than 20,000 people skipped school, work, and whatever else to attend a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at KeyArena, the city's NBA basketball facility. Only 18,000 made it inside to hear the Illinois senator, the leftover throng crowding around the building for some glimpse of the man who would bring change.
"When it was announced that Obama was coming to town, my kids were jumping up and down," Everett said the day after the rally as she registered to participate in her local caucus. "They are so fired up; it's really incredible."
That same energy has pulsed through high school gymnasiums, church basements, and community center cafeterias across the country's Western states this month. For primaries and caucuses that have held little import in past elections, the mobs of eager voters represent a welcome surge.
At one caucus location in North Seattle, site coordinator Rene Murry could hardly contain her enthusiasm as she pronounced to cheers from voters that "Washington matters this time." That sentiment remains overwhelmingly evident in the race for the Democratic nomination as Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton battle for delegates. The Republican contest, which also drew high voter participation initially, has since cooled as Sen. John McCain of Arizona emerges as the likely nominee.
A dozen states had reported record turnout through Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, the largest numbers emerging from Democratic contests. The height of that trend centered on Obama, who drew unprecedented support for blowout victories in Western states like Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Utah. Four days later, decisive wins in Nebraska and Washington further cemented Obama's dominance out West.
In Nebraska, caucus workers reported massive overcrowding as almost 40,000 Democrats flooded voting locations in the state party's first ever presidential caucus. In Washington, the number of Democratic voters participating in the Feb. 9 caucus doubled the old record of 100,000 set in 2004.
Ted Dezember and Cory Boisoneau, a pair of 25-year-old Obama supporters, sat together in the packed 1,000-seat auditorium of Seattle's Ingraham High School as they prepared to caucus for the first time. "Cool candidates; well, cool candidate," Dezember said of what drew him to participate this year. "It's a very similar message, so it's about who can inspire me more," Boisoneau said of his preference for Obama over Clinton. "Hillary can't seem to do that."
On the cool and inspirational meter, Obama outclasses all rivals on the Democratic and Republican side. That reality, more than substantive policy positions, may help explain his success in states outside the political beltway. A young and gifted orator, Obama appeals to youth and electoral newcomers-a combination that drives massive waves of inexperienced voters to the polls. The correlation between Obama victories and high turnout in formerly overlooked states is no mere coincidence.
Clinton has brought some measure of new voters into the process, too. Despite being wheelchair-bound, Ruth Rawlins, 87, made it out to caucus in Seattle for the first time in her life. Her motivation? "Voting for a woman. I probably would support a woman on the Republican side."
Matters like style and gender play large roles in the decision-making process for many Democrats, whose choice of candidates offers few policy or philosophical differences. Both Clinton and Obama propose universal government-run health-care plans. Both candidates favor the pullout of U.S. forces from Iraq. Both support amnesty for illegal immigrants, argue that abortion (including partial-birth abortion) should be legal, and favor federal caps on greenhouse-gas emissions. Foundationally, both contend that government should be in the business of guaranteeing equal opportunity (and sometimes equal results) rather than simply protecting liberty.
Increasingly, that liberal platform resonates in some Western states once considered Republican strongholds. That Obama stands marginally to the left of Clinton helps his cause in such regions.
In Colorado, where polls had suggested a razor-thin match heading into Super Tuesday, Obama emerged with a 2-to-1 blowout victory. Caucus sites throughout the state reported overflowing crowds and boundless energy. At East High School in Denver, Obama signs, buttons, and T-shirts dotted a standing-room-only crowd in the gymnasium, foreshadowing the night's impending result.
Jim Laurie, 65, commented on the "extraordinary" and "amazing" participation level as he stood behind a registration table. The precinct captain and Presbyterian minister admires Obama's willingness to speak of faith on the campaign trail, a strategy uncommon among Democrats in past elections but one that has helped Obama gain traction among some religious voters.
"I know the church he's a part of, Trinity United Church in Chicago, and it is a terrific congregation," Laurie said. "I have a lot of respect for them and what they do in the community. If he's a representative member of that congregation, then I'm really excited about that kind of social ministry. I see him as bringing good values."
Obama's packaging of liberal politics in general platitudes and faith-based rhetoric endears him to independents and even some evangelicals weary of broken GOP promises. That broad appeal feeds perceptions of Obama as a unifier and his campaign as a national movement. It also helps explain how he has found such traction in Western states not known for the African-American vote. Obama's message of hope and change transcends race.
Dave Cullen, a precinct captain in Denver, pleaded with voters during his caucus not to miss the chance at supporting the kind of high caliber candidate that comes along "once or twice in a generation." Tonia Crosby, who entered the evening undecided, listened to Cullen's plea and eventually chose to join the Obama team due to Clinton's former position on the board of Wal-Mart. "I'm afraid that she's big business," Crosby said.
By contrast, Obama maintains an image as the anti-establishment outsider able to relate to the common man. That kind of populism has fueled the leftward shift in some Western states, a trend Democrats hope will help take back the presidency this fall.
In the wake of Obama's impressive Colorado victory, Gov. Bill Ritter suggested it may signal a broader trend: "If you look, we've got Democratic governors in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. And we all were preceded by Republicans. There is something happening here in the West that is very exciting and very significant." Ritter told WORLD that Democrats in those states are hungry for a president who will advance as progressive an agenda as the governors they've elected. "Democrats in the West care about people who will tackle big problems and try to solve their problems."
For Democrats in Arizona, California, Nevada, and New Mexico, that person is Clinton. Her victories in those Southwestern states have prevented a complete Obama sweep out West. Looming large on the horizon is the Texas primary March 4 in which more than 200 delegates are up for grabs. Polls continue to show Clinton with a commanding lead there, but Obama's momentum has narrowed the gap.
Though less important in the delegate count, Wyoming, Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota could play unusually significant roles in helping either Obama or Clinton build momentum should the race continue through the spring into early summer. Whichever candidate emerges victorious, Western states figure to remain relevant right up to the Democratic convention in August-an event for which Denver will play an appropriate host.