Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Post-mortem: The Iowa Caucuses

When all of the ballots were finally tallied from last night’s Iowa Republican caucuses, former Massachusetts Governor Willard Mitt Romney came out on top--but by only eight votes. As Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen observes this morning, Romney beat Rick Santorum “30,015 to 30,007--a difference of about one-tenth of one percent--in the closest Iowa caucus ever.”

While Santorum and Romney were jockeying for first place in the Hawkeye State, Jason Easley of PoliticusUSA wrote:
The winner of tonight’s Iowa GOP caucuses is destined to beat Bob Dole’s record for the lowest amount of support for a winning candidate ever.

No matter who wins Iowa one thing will be perfectly clear: Republican primary voters have never been more unhappy with their options than they are in 2012. All through 2011, the media was trumpeting the enthusiasm among Republicans for the 2012 election. If Republican enthusiasm ever did exist, it has almost certainly been killed by the group of candidates who are battling for their party’s nomination.

The winner of tonight’s Iowa Republican caucuses will finish with 25% of the vote, which will set an Iowa Republican record for the least amount of support for a winning candidate. The previous record holder was Bob Dole in 1996 who won Iowa with 26% of the vote, and we all know what happened to Dole the following November.
Benen offers some more perspective:
Yes, the votes were tallied and the former one-term governor gets the bragging rights, but therein lies the point: there’s not much for Romney to boast about here. After five years of near-constant campaigning, Romney managed to get fewer votes in Iowa last night than he did in his first campaign. He also picked up the dubious honor of the weakest win in the history of the caucuses--no victor has ever managed to finish first with less than 25% of the vote until last night.

After spending nearly $4.7 million, most of it towards the very end of the contest, these are not results Romney should be proud of.

Santorum, meanwhile, comes out of the Hawkeye State with a long-sought title: the anti-Romney. Whereas Romney’s trajectory is underwhelming and reinforces doubts about his limited appeal, the former Pennsylvania senator closed stronger than anyone thought possible, and leaves Iowa with undeniable momentum, and a compelling pitch to GOP voters who don’t want to vote for a dishonest flip-flopper who only discovered his right-wing beliefs when pollsters told him it would advance his ambitions.
I don’t think many people believe that Santorum can go the distance on this one, actually capturing the Republican presidential nomination this year. Ed Kilgore spells out Santorum’s dilemma:
Santorum is theoretically someone who could inherit the strong anti-Romney vote in the GOP. But he's not very well-equipped to do so. Having spent virtually all his time in Iowa, he has no organization elsewhere, and whatever money he can raise on the basis of winning, placing or showing in that state will be dwarfed by Romney's resources. And despite his apparent victory in the “true conservative” subprimary, he has little natural appeal in the southern states where any challenge to Romney must emerge and thrive. For all his success with Iowa evangelicals, he's a Catholic, with none of the One-of-Us pull in South Carolina and Florida that 2008 Iowa winner Mike Huckabee had. And as recent diatribes by RedState proprietor and southern conservative opinion-leader Erick Erickson showed, Santorum’s record as a longtime congressional insider and supporter of “Big Government Conservatism” is going to be a real problem for him when the campaign goes South.
Yet the former Pennsylvania senator can certainly play spoiler. Noah Schrieber has a good analysis of this in The New Republic:
Now, the press will dwell on Romney’s vulnerability. We’ll point out that, despite his best efforts, three-quarters of the Republican primary electorate still won’t give him the time of day. Though he’ll almost certainly still win New Hampshire, the margin will be smaller than it otherwise would have been, perhaps much smaller. Santorum may well come out of New Hampshire with more momentum than Romney, since the bar there is so low for him, and since the boost he gets going in will be much bigger after fighting Romney to a draw in Iowa. That creates real danger for Romney as the two men head into South Carolina, a state where social conservatives predominate and Mormons struggle.

Can Santorum ultimately deny Romney the nomination? Probably not. As many others have pointed out, he just doesn’t have the resources and organization to go stride-for-stride with Romney over the long-haul. He also has a record of outlandish rhetoric and K-Street sleaze that will surely be picked over in the coming weeks. But even if Santorum can’t stop Romney from becoming the Republican nominee, he can probably stop him from becoming president. He can do this by prolonging the primary contest by a month or two and deepening the ambivalence toward Romney within the GOP. In the coming weeks, Republican voters will be hearing a lot more about Romney’s intellectual paternity of “Obamacare” and his serial flip-flopping on social issues.

Improbably, Santorum’s secret weapon in this effort will be Newt Gingrich. Newt made his contempt for Romney glaringly obvious in his concession speech last night, suggesting that bloodying the former Massachusetts governor more than suffices as his rationale for staying in the race. Now Gingrich gives Santorum the great luxury of Romney hit man for which Santorum can’t be held responsible. (It goes to show that if you’re going to shoot at an unserious candidate, as Romney shot at Newt in Iowa, you’d better kill him.)

For Santorum, the question is whether he’s savvy enough to capitalize on his post-Iowa opportunities. Can he stay sunny and positive while Newt (and, in New Hampshire, Jon Huntsman) rough Romney up? Or will he have a fall into the shrillness that sometimes gets the better of him, as when he criticized Romney on health care during last year’s debates? Will he be able to appeal to blue-collar Catholics in New Hampshire who might be just as concerned about the loss of manufacturing jobs as they are about abortion? Can he fuse together Tea Partiers and social conservatives?
Today’s announcement by the congenitally absurd Minnesota congresswoman, Michelle Bachmann, that she’s “suspending” her presidential campaign after a last-place finish in Iowa will probably play to Santorum’s advantage; her radical-right, evangelical backers aren’t likely to jump on Mormon Romney’s bandwagon. It would have been even better for Santorum had Texas Governor Rick Perry--who’s done nothing to distinguish himself (at least in a positive way) on the campaign trail--had followed Bachmann out the door; Romney benefits from having more, not fewer, rivals to divide the majority vote against him within his own party. However, Perry says he’ll remain in the race, despite finishing in fifth place last nigh. Don’t expect him to stick around for long, though; Perry’s once seemingly strong momentum (remember how he was supposed to be the GOP’s winning anti-Romney contender?) has been blunted, and he’s likely to bail if he can’t win big support in the South Carolina GOP primary on January 21. Meanwhile, Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas)--who captured third place in Iowa--boasts a pretty well-organized and lean campaign structure, and seems capable of bedeviling Romney to the last. Oh, and Gingrich? Well, the disgraced former House Speaker may become Romney’s worst nightmare, as he travels about his home region, the South, trash-talking Mr. Flip-flop at every turn.

Romney had hoped to secure the GOP presidential nomination early, with decisive primary and caucus wins. It looks now as if his candidacy will be severely crippled in advance of August’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

That’s good news for President Obama, who has no challengers going into early September’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. And, dare I say, it’s good news for the future of the United States as well.

READ MORE:Last Warning for the GOP,” by Dalitso Njolinjo (The Moderate Voice); “Santorum’s Demi-Victory Hangs the 2012 For-Sale Sign,” by Charles P. Pierce (Esquire); “Iowa Results Show Romney’s Weakness Even Against GOP ‘Unelectables,’” by Paul Begala (The Daily Beast); “Gingrich Floats Idea of Anti-Romney Alliance” (Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire).

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