By Barry Casselman
The results are in from the Iowa Republican caucus, and the process of reducing the GOP field of presidential candidates has begun beyond the virtuality of polling, candidate propaganda and pundit analysis.
There are certain obvious conclusions from these results, and there are also some not-so-obvious consequences that might not be widely aired in the national media discussion and analyses.
It is always better to win than come in second, even by less than 10 votes, but the unprecedented closeness of the first and second place finishes in Iowa is not substantively meaningful. Mitt Romney reaffirmed his frontrunner status in the race one more time, and the conservative base of the party began to coalesce around a candidate, their unlikely new poster boy Rick Santorum. Mr. Santorum’s late surge was the result of two primary factors.
First, he was the only major candidate who had not yet had his “bubble,” or moment in the limelight; and there was no time therefore to subject him to the usual scrutiny. Second, he had worked Iowa with commendable persistence and diligence, criss-crossing the state with meet-and-greets, speeches and other appearances. Iowa and New Hampshire are the two early voting states where such hard work pays off, and it paid off big-time for the former senator from Pennsylvania.
But it must be remembered that someone who pulled off a very similar last-minute victory in Iowa in 2008, Mike Huckabee, did not fare that well in subsequent GOP primaries. Huckabee, like Santorum, did not have much money or previous national exposure, but the former Arkansas governor did have assets that Santorum does not have, i.e., a charming, ebullient personality, a good life story, and a record of winning as a governor. Nontheless, he soon trailed eventual nominee John McCain and then first-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney through most of the remaining campaign.
Mr. Santorum has been a congressman and senator, but he lost his last race (as an incumbent) several years ago by 18 points to a lackluster Democrat whose main asset was that he bore a well-known Pennsylvania political name. Mr. Santorum lost this race by such a wide margin because, in large part, he ran far to the right of the Pennsylvania electorate, an electorate, it should be noted that was strongly pro-gun and pro-life. Pennsylvania is my home state, and where I grew up. I know that it is difficult to lose a statewide re-election race there, even in a trend election against your party, unless you are inflexibly too liberal or too conservative.
Nontheless, Mr. Santorum will now have his “bubble” going into New Hampshire. One of the other conservative GOP candidates, Michele Bachmann has now bowed out, and Santorum should receive many of her votes. Governor Rick Perry, however, has not yet withdrawn following his disappointing Iowa performance, and his share of the conservative base might not yet flow to Mr. Santorum or anyone else.
Ron Paul, who came in a somewhat distant third in Iowa, will definitely remain in the race, and he still commands a very loyal following among certain conservatives/libertarians. Furthermore, Mr. Santorum will now receive the scrutiny of his record and his views that did not take place before his Iowa performance.
Proclamations that conservatives now have only one candidate to rally behind are thus premature.
Newt Gingrich, who finished a distant fourth in Iowa, is also far from retiring from this contest. He was the subject of an extraordinary negative ad campaign against him in Iowa after his recent surge in the polls, and he is obviously angry about this, directing his ire so far to frontrunner Romney. Mr. Gingrich trails in New Hampshire, but has done very well in polls in South Carolina and Florida, and conceivably could still win those primaries. If he is to do so, however, he will have to bring some order to his campaign, and self-discipline to his strategy.
Self-righteous anger from how most of his opponents ganged up on him in Iowa will not be sufficient for hims to restart his campaign.
Gingrich is still the most articulate big-picture GOP candidate, and through remaining debates and his own political advertising, he will need to remind Republican voters what it is that only he can offer.
He now has substantial campaign funds, many more volunteers and new professional campaign staff, but he must quickly put all of them together into a serious “fighting force,” or he will soon fade from being a serious contender.
I think Mr. Romney’s hand was, on balance, strengthened in Iowa. He has the resources, the organization and the self-disciplined strategy to prevail, either with quick victories in New Hampshire and Florida, and possibly in South Carolina as well. If all of these do not materialize, he has in place the organization to contend seriously all the way to Tampa, should that become necessary. Mr. Gingrich now says that, because of the ads against him Iowa by Mr. Romney’s independent PAC, the gloves are off in New Hampshire and beyond.
This might not help Mr. Gingrich so much, but it could hurt Mr. Romney as the campaign proceeds.
The commonplace about Mitt Romney in the campaign to date is that he is a flip-flopper, too moderate, and not a true conservative. So far, these arguments have not seemed to sway many voters outside the party activist base. In Iowa, Mr. Romney, according to exit polls, attracted a notable number of strong conservatives to his banner. (It should also be noted that Mr. Paul’s vote total in Iowa was notably increased by non-Republican voters.)
Many Democrats seem to be enjoying the GOP battle, suggesting the Republican field is weak and that conservatives are dangerously split.
This is transparently spin. There is no hard evidence yet that voters who want to defeat President Obama next November will not strongly get behind the eventual GOP nominee.
Barry Casselman has been writing about national politics since 1972. Contact him at email@example.com.