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Special to msnbc.com
updated 2/9/2008 8:41:41 PM ET 2008-02-10T01:41:41

Helping choose the next leader of the free world was utterly chaotic Saturday but Lisa Loop gave it her best. "My legs are sore from standing for almost two hours to see Obama yesterday," she said, "so I didn’t know how much energy I had left for today’s caucus."

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Loop, 46, a novelist, had brought her family to experience a Washington state Democratic caucus with her. This was a first for them all, and she was hopeful. "This city is full of articulate people who want to have their say," she said. "I’m very patriotic because my mother was an immigrant from Sweden. She used to cry whenever they played the national anthem."

Loop's first-timer experience has been repeated again and again across the country this election season as Americans show new interest in political processes that they have paid little attention to in the past. The lack of an incumbent candidate, or even a vice president hoping for a promotion, large initial fields of candidates in both parties, changes in election dates and a wide array of issues have combined to draw voters to polling places in record numbers.

In past elections, like elsewhere, Washington voters haven’t felt they had any real say in who was selected as their party's nominee; the candidates have been finalized earlier in the primary process. That’s why Loop and her colleagues never paid much attention before. Caucuses were for committee ladies, fat cats and activists. "Who did I know besides Joanie Caucus in Doonesbury cartoons?" Loop asked.

Her husband, Andrew Chapman, 45, wasn’t especially optimistic, and threatened to leave promptly if the crowd was too thick. This being Seattle, they clutched their Starbucks cups as they joined the throngs. Loop found her caucus location, Washington Middle School, in the middle of the city’s multi-ethnic Central District, by checking with the Obama Web site. One waggish neighbor planted a scribbled "Obama Parking Only" sign next to the asphalt. A tiny plane pulled a "Ron Paul" banner overhead.

Loop’s older daughter, Augusta, 12, found a friend and scampered off. Her younger daughter, Nora, 6, held her stuffed animal and clung to her parents as they melted into the crowd. The Democratic party knew to expect record numbers, and Dwight Pelz, the chair of the entire state party, was directing traffic himself.

A volunteer boomed into the masses, "Do you know your precinct number?" Loop had no idea, but found a neighbor who did. "What do we do?" asked her husband. "Is this only for Democrats?"

The family slowly made their way into the school’s cavernous, but packed lunchroom, where the temperature had risen dramatically from the crush of people. The mood was festive, though, and Loop found at least a dozen friends and neighbors in the varied crowd. Her husband gave out friendly air kisses once they found their precinct table, and joked that booze was all they needed for a real block party.

"I don’t think I need to stay too long," Loop murmured. "Just about everyone signed in as an Obama supporter." But then she got to catching up with her neighbors. "It’s cool to see absolutely everyone here," she said. "Much more of a community." Her neighbor, Maggie Elkon, agreed. "This is like from the horse and buggy days!"

Twenty minutes later, Loop sank into a chair, waiting for whatever was supposed to happen. Another neighbor, Leroy Jenkins, 42, a Microsoft engineer, explained to Loop how the precinct captain would give everyone a chance to speak and change their votes if they wanted. "The Obama Web site had an animated explanation of how it all works," he said.

But the precinct captain had a cold and couldn’t speak above the din. Chapman, Loop’s husband, stepped in to shout out the script, explaining the preliminary tally. He popped in a cough drop so he could continue, and Loop hopped up on a chair to watch. Then it was time for one-minute speeches from anyone wanting to speak in favor of a candidate.

Barbara Laners, 67, an attorney and history teacher at Evergreen College in Olympia, the state capital, spoke first, in favor of Obama. "You don’t get experience just from being married to the president," she noted. "The Constitution only says you have to be at least 35 years old and born in the U.S. It doesn’t say anything about experience." Later, she laughed: "I love the caucus process —

I get to talk smack!"

The next and last speaker was architect Ann Beeman, one of a handful of middle-aged Caucasian women who supported Hillary Clinton. "Hillary will enjoy wearing the pants in the White House!" she urged.

Scattered applause erupted from various corners of the room as the different precincts’ results were tallied. Obama balloons floated in the air. Jeff Lee, 48, a physician, couldn’t believe the crowd was almost as thick even after an hour after the caucus began. "I heard the turnout four years ago was really low," he said. Citing a desire for change, he said his candidate was Obama too.

Finally, time for the tally
Finally, Loop’s precinct tallied votes and asked for volunteers to act as delegates as the long and convoluted process wends its way to the state legislative and then congressional districts. The huddled group of Hillary supporters got 12 votes for a total of one delegate. The more effervescent band of Obama supporters gleaned 59 votes for a total of four delegates to move forward.

Loop seemed satisfied. After an hour and a quarter, she and her family were ready to go home, having participated as fully as they could in their democracy. All in all, a good experience. "This is way better than voting!" she said. "It’s less efficient, and hotter, but more fun.

"Besides, it’s very humanizing to be able to talk to people who might not agree with you. We need more of that."

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