'We're overwhelmed.' Caucus turnout sets a record, surprising state and party leaders.
Traffic backed up outside high schools in Andover, Roseville and St. Louis Park. Edina police got calls from motorists complaining about jammed roads near Valley View Middle School. Lines of people stretched a half-block outside the Macalester College student union.
It was Caucus Night 2008 in Minnesota, and across the state, Democratic and Republican leaders said they had never seen anything like it.
"We're overwhelmed," precinct chair Steve Carlson told a Republican caucus crowd at John Glenn Middle School in Maplewood, where extra tables were wheeled in to accommodate 100 people standing outside. "The previous record was 322 in 1988. I believe we're going to set a new record."
They did. And so, apparently, did the state.
With 71 percent of DFL precincts reporting, more than 154,000 votes had been cast for the presidential contenders.
That easily topped the 75,000 to 100,000 figure that DFL officials had predicted, and swamped the 56,000 who turned out for the last presidential election four years ago.
It appeared that Republicans also were ready to set a record. With 66 percent of precincts reporting, more than 41,000 had cast presidential preference ballots. If that trend continued, it looked as though more than 70,000 Republicans may have gone to caucuses -- far more than the 35,000 to 50,000 that Drake had expected.
"People are finally paying attention," GOP spokesman Mark Drake said. "Minnesota actually matters now."
Heavy turnout was reported outstate as well. Rochester police were called in to direct traffic arriving at Century High School, a DFL caucus site, according to the Post-Bulletin website. In Duluth, turnout at Woodland Middle School jammed parking lots within five blocks of the school.
Recipe for a crowd
Some observers said a large number of young people and independents accounted for a good share of the turnout.
"There are a lot of first-time folks that want to become involved," said Donna Cassutt, state DFL associate chair.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she found 150 people at a caucus at Sandburg Middle School in Golden Valley that typically draws a dozen or so activists, a turnout she called "absolutely amazing."
She added: "These were not your veteran caucusgoers."
At St. Louis Park High School, Democrats ran out of ballots and handed out blank squares of paper for people to write down their choice.
Officials attributed the high turnout to several factors: the earlier date, a sensational presidential race and attention-grabbing candidates for the White House and U.S. Senate.
Throw in Tuesday's mild weather, and there was a recipe for impressive turnout.
With all the attention given the national races, there was one slight glitch, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie noted.
Requests for absentee ballots poured into his office from people thinking Minnesota was holding a primary.
"That confusion is also a signal of very high interest in participating in the process," Ritchie said.
"Having this many people is a good problem, but it's still a problem," Rybak said. "It's unfair to say that in this one-and-a-half-hour period everybody should go, even if you're working or are a student."
Rybak attended several caucuses in Minneapolis; one of them, he said, attracted 360 people. Last time that precinct drew 40.
"This feels like the Iowa caucuses," said the mayor, "where they planned for a dinner party and got a kegger."
Staff writers Pat Doyle, John McIntyre, Jenna Ross, Maria Elena Baca, Jean Hopfensperger, Jon Tevlin, Anthony Lonetree, Larry Oakes and Terry Collins contributed to this report. Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455