DES MOINES - 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
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
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.
In fact, the road ahead for both parties is filled with pitfalls, dead ends,
and unplanned-for risks. The game is not only on, it is beginning to
heat up to a climactic confrontation of primal American political
Copyright (c) 2012 by barry Casselman
All rights reserved.