DES MOINES, Iowa, 2:45 p.m. – “It’s like the morning after a party,” Iowa State Republican Party Exectuive Director Chuck Laudner says, surveying the phone banking room that looks like a fraternity ripped through it. “Everyone just picks up and goes home, and we’ve got to clean up.”

And that’s just what it is: the morning after the biggest party in Iowa caucus history. Laudner – a lifelong Iowan – has been watching and participating in caucuses for decades, and he says he’s never seen anything like this.

“When the history of this Iowa caucus is written, it will be remembered as the year of the new voter,” Laudner predicts. “You saw 25 to 30 percent of caucus-goers self-identifiying as first-time caucusgoers. It’s all these people who had never voted before so their names weren’t on voter registration lists, or young people who were going to their first caucus.”

Huckabee works the crowd

Mike Huckabee works the crowd last night. (YDN)

After the dust cleared last night, it was reported that about 120,000 Republicans went to Iowa’s “First in the Nation” caucuses, along with approximately 239,000 Democrats. That represents, for Republicans, a 50 increase over 2000 election totals. For Democrats, it’s a 90 percent jump.

For Republican Iowans in the 17-25 age demographic, this was their first caucus. The caucus in 2004 was uncontested as President Bush ran for re-election, so any youth coming of age since 2000 got their first crack at a caucus last night. But as Laudner says, they are traditionally the most unreliable demographic to participate in elections and therefore the old wisdom held it was a waste of resources to target that very group.

“But all that’s changed now,” he says. “Obama and Huckabee proved that’s the group to target because that’s the winning margin.”

Now all eyes turn to New Hampshire, which Laudner says has a history of playing counterweight to the Iowa caucus. In 1996, Republicans in Iowa picked Bob Dole. New Hampshire went with Pat Buchanan. In 2000, Iowans like George Bush. New Hampshire famously backed John McCain.

“New Hampshire voters like to say, ‘Here’s the alternative to Iowa,’” he explains. “I can guarantee you that our results are going to have no bearing on who they pick.”

What Iowa does do is winnow the field. The old adage goes that Iowa punches three tickets, Laudner explains – first class, coach, and standby. This morning, this morning, those three tickets are being used by Obama, Edwards, and Clinton on the Democratic side, and Huckabee, Romney, and Thompson on the Republican side. But Laudner says it’s not quite that simple. Rather, Laudner says he likes to think of it like brackets in the NCAA basketball tournament.

“Here it was Romney vs. Huckabee. Now we go to New Hampshire, where it’s going to be Romney vs. McCain. And then the winner there gets to go to Michigan. And then it’s Fred Thompson in South Carolina – don’t forget, he’s not 0-1 yet.

“And Rudy gets a bye all the way to Florida.”

-Zack Abrahamson