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120104 Reflections on the Iowa Caucuses

Reflections on the Iowa Caucuses

1/4/12

 
After a long night of reviewing late returns from far-flung precincts, we have concluded the closest Iowa Caucuses in history—and we still do not really know who won. Yes, as I went to bed, State Party Chairman Matt Strawn made a brief public statement that many media outlets used as license to project a winner. He observed that the results were accurate because the State Party’s tabulation process is transparent and available for real-time observation and objection from the campaigns. From all I know, that is a fair statement, and—from what Strawn said—apparently no campaign lodged an objection last night.
 

However, he noted what the State Party had similarly said a few days earlier in a press advisory: precincts have fourteen days to deliver “certified results.” This apparently means that party volunteers will go over all the numbers

again at their leisure. During that process, will they uncover a few errors made as they scrambled during the night to compute over 120,000 votes cast in nearly 1,800 locations? That seems at least possible. Would those corrected errors cause a net change of more than eight votes (the current purported margin of victory)? That likewise is a possibility. What we saw last night, unfortunately, is the media drifting back a bit to its 2000 Florida preference for expedited over accurate results. We shall see in a week or so whether the media regrets this latest middle-of-the-night projection, a projection that MSNBC, at least, has this morning officially classified as a projection for the “APPARENT WINNER”—whatever that means.
 
The irony of all this, of course, is that these results formally are irrelevant. Iowa (using an odd and, thankfully, somewhat unusual process) selects its delegates at a state convention later. Yesterday was just a statewide straw poll that has massive symbolic meaning but nothing else. All that matters is this: last night, two candidates took 25% for what is essentially a tie in the campaign’s first statewide popular vote. In so doing, the winner (whoever he was) turned in the weakest showing of any Iowa Republican Caucuses victor, beating Bob Dole’s 1996 record of winning with just 26%. Meanwhile, everyone else suffered varying degrees of defeat. Here is a look at each candidate in descending order of the present vote total.
 

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (25%)

Four years ago, Romney also took 25%, but then that was only good enough for a second place finish 9% back from the winner. This time, the more fractured field allowed 25% to produce a much better showing. That is both good and bad for Romney. The good news lies in the simple reality that Romney, a more centrist Republican, is facing a conservative branch of the Party torn among several candidates. To the extent that that fracturing remains, Romney can do more with less, and showings in the twenties and thirties could win him states that might not otherwise be available.
 
However, the bad news is that the present state of affairs will not last forever, and increasingly over January and into February the number of harder-line conservative candidates will dwindle as some run out of steam. Since Romney is certainly the best funded and best organized candidate, the trick for him now is to grow his momentum at a pace that will exceed the increasingly consolidated vote against him.
 

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (25%)

In full disclosure, I got Santorum at least partially wrong when I last wrote about him in August. At that point, I did acknowledge that he is a “talented politician, well experienced as a two-term senator from a big state” who “has a natural niche as he tries to establish himself as the top-tier, strongly conservative candidate.” However, his fourth place finish at the Ames, Iowa Straw Poll led me to conclude that Bachmann was eclipsing him as the conservative candidate. That part was certainly wrong. However, what I still think I got right is why a cloud hangs over Santorum (his strong showing last night notwithstanding).
 
That cloud is his devastating defeat back in 2006. He is surely correct (as he reminds us frequently) that as a strong conservative, he twice won senatorial elections in the big, swing state of Pennsylvania. In 1994, he narrowly ousted an incumbent 49%-47%, and in 2000, he won reelection 52%-46% even as the GOP presidential ticket lost the state 46%-51%. Those are certainly impressive wins. However, would they not make Santorum a top tier presidential candidate from the very beginning? Young, articulate, smart senators from major states tend to be at the center not the outskirts of media attention (the President being a rather quintessential example). What makes Santorum different?
 
The answer, of course, is 2006. In his third Senate bid, Santorum not only lost but was destroyed in a historically massive 41%-59% landslide. Few senators in recent memory have suffered such a fate. That outcome broke his career, and while last night was his first successful step toward recovery, he retains a distinct political limp.
 
His fundraising problems show this better than anything: in 2006, he was rolling in money and ran an approximately $20,000,000 campaign. Many of this cycle’s presidential candidates would have given a lot to have that much funding for a nationwide—let alone statewide—effort. However—up until last night at least—Santorum has found himself largely abandoned by his old cadre of donors. To his credit, he ran a person-to-person, minimal-staff, low-budget campaign in Iowa with great success, but going forward, that will not be feasible. By February, states will vote with such frequency that all he can devote is, at best, a few days to each. As that time approaches, Santorum rapidly needs to rebuild his pre-2006 political infrastructure and funding if he is to have any chance.
 
The good news for him, though, is that he is certainly a skillful politician who can discuss social, foreign policy, and middle class issues interchangeably with passion, authenticity, and intelligence. Perhaps most importantly, he has totally avoided the blunders and mistakes that plagued each of the other hard conservative candidates—Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, and Perry. (To prove this, take one minute for each of these candidates and list amazingly stupid or embarrassing things they did in the last six months. At least a couple big ones should readily come to mind for everyone except Santorum.) All this shows is that were it not for 2006, he might have been a frontrunner all along.
 
The bad news is that had he been an earlier frontrunner, some of his rougher edges would have come to light at a less crucial time. For instance, his opponents may resurrect the fact that he was one of just two senators to vote against confirmation of Bob Gates, who by all accounts became a widely respected and fairly successful secretary of defense. Is Santorum one of the final holdouts for the Bush Administration’s old pre-Gates war strategy? To put it more bluntly, is Santorum the George W. Bush candidate? That might not play well, especially given how primary voters have largely forgotten (intentionally, in seems) those years.
 

Texas Rep. Ron Paul (21%)

Not a whole lot need be said about Paul. His showing was impressive and a big improvement over his fifth place showing (at 10%) last time. The problem for Paul is obvious: libertarianism, especially when coupled with a hyper-dovish foreign policy, appeals to just a small slice of Republican primary voters. Apparently in Iowa that slice was 21%. Chances are, however, that number will be above average compared to later contests. New Hampshire too might be unusually receptive to him, but after that, he will struggle to maintain momentum.
 
Unfortunately for him, he can do little to change that dynamic. He is committed to speaking his mind and not modifying his message for political gain. That is noble, but when one’s beliefs are unpopular, even nobility does not result in victory. A slim chance still exists, however, that Paul could emerge as a kingmaker if he wins enough delegates to play a role at the Convention.
 

Former Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich (13%)

Gingrich is—to use his own favorite word—a “model” of a candidate with remarkably great strengths and strong weaknesses. He is certainly an innovative thinker and has extensive experience with the legislative process, and his speaking skill and wit are truly impressive. However, he has campaigned in an erratic and occasionally arrogant fashion, and his personal life is a gnawing problem in the background (especially as he campaigns with Callista prominently at his side, an awkward reminder that he kept a mistress while he was speaker).
 
The big question is whether his fourth place showing last night justifies his continuation in the race. On the one hand, he fell far short of Santorum, who for the moment now becomes the lead conservative candidate. On the other hand, one should note that John McCain came in fourth place at 13% last time and went on to be the nominee. Much for Gingrich rides on whether Perry drops out. If he does, then Gingrich would become the only major Southern candidate (other than Paul, who lacks traditional Southern appeal). If Gingrich could then win several Southern states and perform respectably elsewhere, he could be a player going into the Convention.
 
However, in doing so, he cannot simply split the vote with Santorum and permit Romney to win numerous narrow victories. Sooner than later, Gingrich would need to knock Santorum out of the race, and such a possibility is—to put it mildly—not imminent. The next two states will be crucial for Gingrich going forward: he would need to do well in New Hampshire (preferably better than Santorum) and then would probably need to win South Carolina.
 

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (10%)

Given how disastrous his campaign has been, Perry’s fifth place showing could, amazingly enough, actually be considered a small recovery from his even lower numbers a month ago. However, he earned no momentum last night. He is now sending mixed signals about whether he will drop out (which is in and of itself another major campaign mistake), so we may have to wait a day or so before we know. The only scenario that includes Perry as a major player going forward is if the field remains splintered and Perry finishes near the top in South Carolina (especially if ahead of Santorum and Gingrich). Even then, though, one is hard pressed to figure out how he gets nominated.
 

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (5%)

This was a devastating result for her given how far she has fallen since winning the Ames, Iowa Straw Poll with 29% just five months ago. In that light, her decision to drop out was wise. What caused this steep decline? To some extent, she probably had inflated numbers during the summer as she acted as a placeholder for conservative support among voters unfamiliar with Santorum and Cain, nervous about Gingrich, and as yet unaware of Perry (who entered the race in August).
 
As alternatives emerged, perhaps voters realized just how out of her league Bachmann was. The reality is that she is a relatively new backbencher in the House of Representatives with no legislative accomplishments or significant committee work under her belt. The only reason she became famous was as a particularly shrill advocate for grassroots activists who would emerge as the Tea Party in 2010. Other than that, she really had little going for her.
 
I personally like to think that one key moment in her decline was her disturbingly inept handling of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine debate, which became a fairly major issue in the race. A prospective president simply cannot go on national television and tell real families with real children who have had a vaccine that that vaccine may have devastating developmental side effects. That is just inexcusable, especially when it became quickly apparent that Bachmann had no idea what she was saying. The reality is that in times of public health crisis, a president’s duty can include dispatching medical information, and no one wants a president who blows that simple yet crucial responsibility. Bachmann’s amateurish statement was at least a symbol—if not a cause—of her collapse.
 

Former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman (1%)

Huntsman skipped Iowa, so his real test lies in New Hampshire. With Romney likely to win there, the bigger battle will probably be for second and third place. Huntsman now jumps into a competition with Gingrich, Paul, and Santorum for those slots. As Huntsman himself has indicated, a poor showing will end his campaign, but a finish in a top slot would let him survive and go forward. We shall see what happens.
 

Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer (0%)

One unfortunate aspect of this campaign is that Roemer has not gotten more attention. A sincere man running on a platform of good governance and electoral reform, he, unfortunately, has not been able to organize an effective campaign. While he ostensibly skipped Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, he will likely suffer a poor fate there too.
 

Political consultant Fred Karger (Results not reported)

The Iowa State Party did not even bother reporting Karger’s numbers last night in the uncertified results. Regardless, since “Other” was itself only a fraction of a percentage, his showing was only a fraction of that fraction. Presumably, he will need to drop out at some point.
 

For the latest delegate numbers, click here.

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