Updated: Saw this after posting... Our Voting System is a Loser
Wow... already commented to death, but the Iowa results were very surprising, especially on the democratic side. Few had predictated such a margin of victory for Obama, and certainly not with a third place finish for Clinton. Huckabee's victory over Romney was certainly not a foregone conclusion, but if it was an upset, it also certainly was not a surprise upset (if that's not too oxymoronically hair splitting of me to say).
Interestingly (and I use the term loosely :)), that Dem/Rep difference in expectation also plays out as you look back at the Iowa Caucuses. Excluding incumbent candidate years, since 1972, only once (1980) was winner in Iowa not the Republican nominee, yet on the Democratic side, only three times was the winner the eventual Democrat nominee (vs. 4 times not).
Why is that?
Certainly there's the much publicized Democratic caucus process itself. In a particular bit of difference, voters get the opportunity to "re-cast" their votes if their candidate is deemed to be not viable. This is kind of cool - it means that you don't have to feel like your vote gets "wasted" if your picking a "risky" candidate who best aligns with more of your views.
This is a brilliant innovation in Democracy that I think better captures the "will of the majority", as opposed to the usual "will of solidarity" embodied by special interest groups. I get the idea - people stick together even if they don't agree on everything just to make sure their voice and vote matters. But I think its this blind allegiance to collective relevance over individual desire that's removed the shades of grey from our hyper-partisan brand of modern politics.
That said, the core problem with the Iowa Democratic process, I believe, is that the viability adjustment (the vote re-cast) requires that your vote is not by secret ballot - that you sacrifice anonymity (think about it). And that means that peer pressure and public perception play a much larger role in the process. The secret ballot provides protective anonymity, and is a vital and important cornerstone of modern democracy. It means people can vote their mind withou fear of reprisal in defeat (as part of the possible minority).
And this delta - that of anonymity - is why I think the Iowa Democratic Caususes are not a very strong predictor of future performance. I'm not saying Obama won't win his party's nomination, but I am saying that he's a candidate that its publically easy to align with him.
I think the real solve for this is to let people pick alternatives (perhaps multiple) up front, in some rank order - a complete overhaul of the existing system.
There's an opportunity for the overhaul as we introduce digital election process - which can provide much greater turnout, as well as enable a whole new class of election "services". The security problem will get solved, though not necessarily in our parents lifetimes (sorry, old folks).
And when it does, (not to sound hokey, but) I think it creates an opportunity to better serve the spirit of the Constitution, and of Democracy, than our current process does.
We'll see what tomorrow brings.... as always :)