Something strange happened on the way to the Democratic caucus in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire. The long term sagging decline in the number of Americans who vote was reversed.
More than twice as many people as were expected lifted themselves off the couch, shut off the TV, pulled on their winter boots and either attended a caucus in Iowa or stepped into a polling place in New Hampshire.
What happened? Why did this trend of fewer and fewer voters exercising their democratic rights – and some woud say, responsibilities – get turned around in these two states?
The most obvious reason is that this was an exciting election, the most exciting primary campaign I can remember. It had all the drama of a sporting event provoking real curiosity and genuine suspense about who would come in first, second and third and even fourth and fifth.
Nobody was a shoo-in. It was wide open, particularly in the last week. Who was up in the polls and who was down, was a question asked not only by the political pundits, but also at the corner store, the dry cleaners and at the dentist’s.
Dean, long the front runner, suddenly began to slip and had a fight on his hands which made him change his manner. He had the greatest organization and the mostmoney-two pluses which were thought to make him invincible.
But this primary – so far – has been like no other. Kerry, long written off as a lost cause, was resurrected by veterans, firefighters, and his personal Vietnam story, first as a hero, and then as a protestor.
Edwards, that sweet faced young man who few took seriously at first, drew larger crowds and centered his ads on the poor pink house where he was born. Names like Wesley Clark and Senator Lieberman became familiar.
Surprisingly, the public was smarter than the pundits expected. They could keep track of the names and what they stood for, and how they presented themselves to the voters.
The intensity of interest and turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire was also ignited by the nature of politics in small states. Voters met the candidates face to face.
Commercials fill the airwaves, yes, but in these states, like in Vermont, a voter can form his or her own opinion unfiltered by the media.
Will the turnout continue to be high as we move on to big state primaries where personal politicking is impossible?
We’ll soon find out. What may be at work here is more than retail politics. It may be that voters care deeply about the direction in which the country is going. Approximately half the country is satisfied with the status quo, and the other half is fired up to create change.
The only way to settle this argument is through the democratic process, which in this democratic primary season, is alive and well.
Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.