WEST DES MOINES, Iowa, 7:27 p.m. — The library at Hillside Elementary School in West Des Moines was packed. Outside the door, bright-eyed women wore bandoliers of Hillary stickers and handed out cookies to caucus-goers.

“Are you supporting Hillary? Supporting Hillary? That corner in the back, that’s where we are.”

The Iowa caucuses began at 7:00 o’clock tonight across the Hawkeye state, ending months of media and inside-the-Beltway speculation about which Democratic and Republican candidates would win the first voting of the year. In West Des Moines, however, Iowans acted as though they had simply gathered to chat about the neighborhood.

Precinct Chair Paul Johnson called the caucus to order at 7:02 p.m., dispensing with pleasantries — “Scott Brennan of the state party has a letter of welcome he wants me to read, but I’m not going to do that…” — and getting right down to business. Looking for a place to park our computers, Matt and I staked out a spot at the back of the fiction section, which quickly became Obama territory as more caucus-goers trickled in.

“Who here is for Barack Obama?” asked Mark Brandsgard, who was soon elected Obama’s caucus leader for the precinct. “It’s a great night to be a Democrat, isn’t it?”

Cheers went up from the Obama section of the crowd. In response to a question from Brandsgard about how many in attendance were first-time caucus-goers, three-quarters of the hands in Obama’s section shot up. At the end of the first round, Obama had garnered 99 of the 264 total caucus-goers in this precinct, putting him far beyond the 15 percent threshold of viability. Behind the front-runner, Clinton and Edwards pulled into second and third place, at 75 and 49 votes, respectively. Taunts arose from the Obama crowd.

“Cutting it a little close there, eh Edwards?” shot one Obama supporter, alluding to Edwards’ narrow eclipsing of the 40-vote viability threshold.

Senators Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson pulled in below 40, and Johnson asked their supporters to step out into the hallway so realignment could take place.

Brandsgard stood on a chair and said with a mischievous smile, “If any of you have any friends in the Biden, Dodd or Richardson groups, this is the part where you can try and persuade them to come join us.” Obama supporters chuckled.

Easier said than done. Justin Jodoin had to convince his friend and Valley High School classmate Zachary Hayes, who stood with the unviable Richardson, to come join Obama’s crew, rather than stand with his own father in the Edwards camp. In the hallway, a ringlet of Richardson supporters formed around one of his backers, who tried in vain to convince Dodd and Biden supporters to join with Richardson and make the New Mexico governor viable.

“This election needs to be about electability,” he said. “Of the last eight presidential elections, seven of them have been won by governors. The one non-governor who won, George H.W. Bush, only served one term. We need to elect a governor.”

But they were not convinced, and the Obama crowd cheered as the majority of supporters from all three unviable candidates plastered on new stickers on top of their first. The sticker read, simply, “Hope.”

Zack Abrahamson