January 04, 2012

Election 2012: Who Really Won in Iowa?

After the American Century

The Iowa Caucus results are in, and Mitt Romney has eked out the narrowest victory in the history of these affairs. Beating Rick Santorum by a whisker, Romney had almost precisely the same vote total as he did in 2008. In other words, after spending millions of dollars and much time in Iowa, Romney was unable to improve on his second place finish of 2008, when he lost decisively to Mike Huckabee. 

Among Republicans, the real winner would seem to be Santorum, who until just a few weeks ago appeared to be an "also ran." [Later note: Santorum actually did win, the recount showed about a month later.] In national polls Santorum typically gets only 4%, but in Iowa he got 25%. Evangelicals rallied around him, even though he is a Catholic. Romney, in contrast, performed in Iowa precisely as he does in the national polls, getting 25% of the votes. He technically won, but no one could say that he achieved momentum. Fully three quarters of the Republicans wanted someone else.

One of these others was Ron Paul, who came in a strong third, with 21% of the vote. This was almost double his national polling numbers, and it suggests that he will continue to be a force in the primaries, particularly as they move toward his native South.  Paul attracts libertarians and small government enthusiasts, and represents the political (but not the religious) Right.

If it is hard to see which Republican really won anything in Iowa, it is easier to see who lost. Michelle Bachmann did poorly, garnering only 5%. Considering that she was born in Iowa and lives in neighboring Minnesota, if there was one place she might (once) have expected to win, Iowa was it. She never planned to run against Romney in his almost-home state of New Hampshire, and she has now withdrawn from the race.

Newt Gingrich was also a loser, as he fell to only 13% of the vote. In the middle of December Gingrich was the leading Republican candidate, with 35% in the national polls. In Iowa he got little more than a third as much support. He expects to do better in South Carolina. Perhaps he finds solace in the fact that McCain did poorly in Iowa in 2008 but still won the nomination.

Then there is Texas Governor, Rick Perry, whose beautiful hair thatches over a weak mind. He got only 10% of the vote. Back in September, when voters knew little about thim, he was briefly the leading candidate, with over 30% in the national polls. But he has embarassed himself so often that surely it is time for  Perry to go home and manicure his hair. However, he has decided to hang in the race at least through South Carolina.

Who then was the winner? Not the Republican Party, which is becoming a deeply split organization. The battle between its three disparate parts – evangelical, corporate, and libertarian – will now become even more intense and divisive. Not Mitt Romney. After four years of running for President, he did no better in Iowa than in 2008, and he has failed to generate any enthusiasm. 

The winner, though not on the ballot, was President Obama.