DES MOINES - Iowans flocked to Democratic presidential-nominating caucuses at a record rate, lining up in frigid temperatures to crowd into schools and private homes across many of the state's 1,781 precincts. Heavy turnout appeared widespread in Republican caucuses as well.
Late in the evening, with nearly all of the precincts reporting, the state Democratic Party described record turnout with 230,000 caucus attendees. That eclipsed the reported 2004 turnout of 122,000, and is more than three times the recorded 61,000 who participated in 2000. An estimated 80,000 Republicans participated.
One Democratic precinct on the west side of Des Moines near Drake University had 444 participants, compared with 279 four years ago. Yet another Democratic precinct on the west side saw 389 people attend, well above the 300 four years ago.
"I know we are seeing incredible participation right now," said Carrie Giddins, spokeswoman for the Iowa Democratic Party. "The lines may be long and it may delay starting the process," she said.
Party officials reported a suburban Republican precinct in Ankeny had 220 people show up, compared with the roughly 100 that had been expected. Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa, said the number of new registrants to the process has been "a lot more than we had anticipated."
Michael McDonald, an election analyst with the Brookings Institution, said he is usually skeptical about reports of high turnout. "We'll have to see how it all shakes out," but the early indications are "quite remarkable."
"I would have expected much more parity between the two parties," McDonald said, particularly because "going to a Democratic caucus is much more time-consuming" than the Republican caucuses. If the heavy-turnout estimates hold up, he said, it would confirm recent Pew Center for Research public-opinion polls that showed heightened interest in the presidential campaign at a much earlier stage in the process.
"It's tracking higher than any election they've seen" in at least two decades, he said. "I thought maybe [public interest] would level out once we got close to the caucuses. The American public really is interested in the campaign."
At Valley High School, where caucuses were being held in eight different rooms, hundreds of people were in line as the 7 p.m. start time approached.
The Democratic chairman of one precinct said he had used up his 250 registration forms; the chairman for another precinct had problems finding enough space for those who wanted to participate.
"There seems to be extremely high turnout, more so than the last one," said Connie Schmett, a Clive precinct captain for Republican Mitt Romney who was stationed at Valley High. "I think we're going to have a lot of people who were undecided make decisions tonight."
With fund-raising, front-runner status and momentum at stake, the campaigns focused on getting participants to the churches, school libraries, kitchens, and living rooms that host the town hall-style caucuses. The help ranged from free rides to snow shovels, rock salt, and pizza.
Relatively few Iowans take part in caucuses - fewer than 6 percent of eligible voters in 2004. Many tend to be older white people who represent the political extremes of their parties, something critics point to as an unrepresentative of the general voting population but given undue political influence.
While the caucuses have often been a springboard for future victories, other winners have later faded. George H.W. Bush in 1980 and Senator Bob Dole in 1988 had big victories in Iowa but saw others pass them for the nomination by winning later contests elsewhere.