DAVENPORT, IOWA — It honestly seemed like it was over before it even started.
At around 6:30 p.m., a half hour before voters would break up into groups to choose their preferred Democratic presidential candidate, the music room at Central High School in Davenport, Iowa, was saturated with Bernie Sanders stickers and signs. People white and black, young and old crowded around a life-sized cardboard Sanders cut-out on the left side of the room. On the right, a smaller contingent of Hillary Clinton supporters held pleasant-sounding conversation. Three people with Martin O’Malley signs stood quietly in the middle.
When 7:00 p.m. rolled around, precinct chair Carlton Wills called the room to order. “Everybody has to work tomorrow, so let’s do this as fast as we can,” he said, and directed voters to where they needed to go: Sanders to the right, Clinton to the left, and O’Malley to the middle.
It then became clear that Clinton — who exactly one year ago was leading Sanders by more than 50 points in Iowa state polls — was about to get clobbered.
Holy crap. First count here in Davenport: left, Bernie. Right, Hillary pic.twitter.com/xwo9HSp3vg
— Emily Atkin (@emorwee) February 2, 2016
The final count at this precinct would eventually be 96 votes for Sanders, and 42 for Clinton — no one for O’Malley, and no one undecided. In delegates, that translated to three for Sanders, and one for Clinton.
Getting to that final count, however, was a process. After Wills asked them to split into groups, the right side of the room crammed literally shoulder-to-shoulder together, while the left side was spaced out and visibly unhappy. As the three O’Malley supporters in the center were deemed unviable to receive a delegate, Wills allowed residents to start offering their opinions on why people should switch sides.
That’s when things got loud.
“Let’s talk about electability!” yelled Clinton supporter Brian McLain across the room. “Come over here — be realistic!” McLain then ripped into Sanders’ promises of free education and free healthcare for all. “Free isn’t free!” he said, and added that a Republican Congress would never allow Sanders to achieve any of his lofty progressive proposals. “If you think the Republicans are going to allow these giant programs you thought of to go sailing through the House and the Senate, you’re nuts, and you need to move to this side.”
Other Clinton supporters shouted their views across the room as well. “Hillary’s a woman! She’s going to have a different perspective on running the country,” one woman said. Another woman agreed: “She’s tougher than any man here!”
But none on either side budged, leaving only the three O’Malley supporters in the middle up for grabs. Two immediately gave up and turned over to Sanders’ side. But first-time caucus-goer Mike Mertell tried to stand strong.
“I don’t think we can end O’Malley’s campaign tonight in Iowa,” he said. “He hasn’t gotten the attention he deserves.”
After about 10 minutes of standing alone and getting battered by both sides, Mertell eventually went to Clinton’s side. Later in the evening as precincts across Iowa began reporting their results, O’Malley dropped out of the presidential race.
CREDIT: Emily Atkin
Now, it should be noted that Davenport — especially downtown Davenport, where this particular precinct was located — is a little different than the rest of Iowa. It is the third-largest city in the typically rural state, and has two universities: Saint Ambrose University, and Palmer College of Chiropractic. It is also more diverse than the rest of the state, with larger black and Latino populations. Those three qualities tend to make Davenport a bit more liberal than other parts of the state.
But Davenport’s liberal precinct D-33 wasn’t the only place where Sanders won on Monday. All night, Clinton and Sanders appeared tied across the state. On Tuesday morning, Clinton narrowly declared victory by just 0.2 percent. But as many noted, some precincts were so close that they literally had to be decided by a coin toss — a coin toss that Clinton won every time.
After voting was said and done, many in the media remarked Sanders’ virtual tie with Clinton was surprising. But at the D-33 precinct on Monday, before anyone knew what the total results would be, people on both sides were astonished by Sanders’ win.
“I am shocked. So surprised,” said a young woman wearing flannel on the Clinton side. Next to her, McLain shook his head. “These kids don’t have a healthy dose of reality yet,” he said.
But it wasn’t just kids who stood strong for Sanders on Monday in Davenport. Ronald Davis, 66, was part of a contingent of voters who came from the Heritage Seniors Building in Davenport to vote on Monday. While some of his friends were on the Clinton side, Davis was firmly for Sanders.
“I’m speaking out because of his concerns for [seniors] — and I’m also a veteran,” Davis said. Plus, he added, “I have grandchildren who could use the free education.”
CREDIT: Emily Atkin
After voting was all said and done, Sanders supporters were visibly elated. “I think it’s going to happen — change is going to happen,” said Howard Solomon, a Davenport resident. “I thought it was going to be much closer. This is definitely better than I expected.”
John Lothrop, the caucus leader for Clinton and a volunteer for her campaign, was also genuinely surprised. “I was not expecting that,” he said. “I was surprised at the energy the Sanders camp brought in.”
It was admittedly a disappointing loss, Lothrop said, but there was at least one silver lining.
“People are excited and want to be involved,” he said. “I’m just glad the Democratic side of the ticket is coming out.”