Last Jenga Standing
The Iowa caucuses are over. Turnout was roughly comparable to four years ago, so there doesn’t seem to be any particular enthusiasm surge over 2008. That was a big year for the Iowa caucuses, but it still led to massive Republican defeat nationally the following November.
The latest polls going into the caucuses had been showing a virtual tie between Representative Ron Paul (R-Lake Jackson, TX), former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The polls were, for once, pretty accurate.
What do the scores mean for the candidates left in the running? What do they mean for the rest of the primaries and for the general election next November?
Paul’s presence in the top tier isn’t surprising. He did well in the Ames Straw Poll, coming in a close second — even though most news outlets pretty much ignored him. Paul has a dedicated, faithful, and almost cult-like following, and Iowa’s seems to be one central hub. He got around 20 percent of the evangelical vote. Most commentators expect him to fade rapidly from now on, but his libertarianism may tend to make him do better than anticipated in New Hampshire, the “Live Free or Die” state. If he does well in New Hampshire, perhaps the media will begin paying attention.
Romney had to place in this tied-for-first position in order to maintain his assumed front-runner status. Though nearly 80 percent of Iowa caucus participants apparently wanted UnMitt, his campaign is trying to keep an air of inevitability. This must be something of a challenge for them, when the story for months has been watching the parade of UnMitts, one after another, jump ahead of him in the popularity poll, only to fade like a short-lived fruit fly. Bachmann, Trump, Gingrich 1.0, Perry, Cain, Gingrich 2.0, each had a moment. Romney remains at the roughly 24 percent ceiling he’s had for the last year. Unable to gather strength, but able to keep from getting voted off the island, his best hope is merely to be the last man standing.
The biggest winner is probably Rick Santorum. As Gingrich 2.0 collapsed in the past couple of weeks, the vacuum formed by the lack of an UnMitt has pulled another candidate up, the last one available (Huntsman is not viable, for other reasons). Santorum has thus become the Flavor of the Month. It isn’t hard to understand why. He’s the last ultra-rightist in the running, less exciting than any of the previous UnMitts, which is why his day has taken so long to come. There are commentators who seem to be surprised at his sudden surge, but the explanation should be obvious. There weren’t any UnMitts left.
In all previous cases, the UnMitts soared to great fanfare. Once the public actually learned something about them, however, they collapsed like stacks of Jenga blocks. If Santorum doesn’t do well in New Hampshire, a failure there could be enough to cement the image of him simply following the pattern.
Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry demonstrate the pattern perfectly. Both are on the way down; since Newt was the most recent peak, he hasn’t yet fallen as far as Perry, so he naturally scored better in Iowa. Bachmann’s peak was so long ago, such a fading memory, she hardly received mention.
What does Iowa mean for the eventual Republican nomination, and, beyond that, for the general election campaign?
Perry and Gingrich both have to do much better in the next two or three primaries in order to remain in the race. For both of them, if they can’t score within the top three at least once in New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Florida, they may as well quit. Michele Bachmann did so poorly in Iowa that she isn’t going to be taken seriously from now on by anyone other than Michele Bachmann.
As long as there is an ultraconservative UnMitt in the race, Romney will be pushed farther to the right in an effort to crowd out the competition. As long as there are two or more candidates perceived as viable, the primary campaign will get increasingly negative, particularly with the impact of unregulated money available under Citizens United. Both of these factors help the Democrats, and will provide fodder for Democratic ads in the summer and the fall.
The last time the Republicans nominated a first-time presidential candidate was in 1964, when the Party chose Barry Goldwater, then considered ultraconservative, to run against incumbent Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater lost in the biggest anti-Republican landslide in history. This is a lesson the Republicans remembered for nearly fifty years. It seems to me unlikely in the extreme that the Party establishment would allow any first-time ultraconservative candidate to get the nod this year. That eliminates everyone but Romney and Paul. For all the libertarian and populist advertising rhetoric the Republicans have been selling for the last three years, they will never go with a Presidential candidate who actually is a libertarian and a populist. That leaves only Romney.
Unable to break 25 percent in the Republican popularity polls, Romney is still viewed as the most viable candidate against Barack Obama. This is what internal Republican politics has produced. He will likely get the nomination, not because Republicans like him, nor because he has any signature issues that will carry him forward, nor due to any inherent strengths or skills or vision.
Romney is likely to be the Republican candidate simply because he’s all they’ve got.
- James Moore: The Non-Romney Race in Iowa (huffingtonpost.com)
- Iowa Poll Shows Paul-Romney-Santorum Dead Heat (huffingtonpost.com)
- Rick Santorum’s Perfect Iowa Timing (usnews.com)
About dcpetterson (187 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson