On Tuesday night, Iowa did what it does: create a lot of sound and fury by being first, and give a result that tells us much less about who will win than about who won't.
On Tuesday night, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who came in fifth in Iowa, said he was going home to reassess a path forward, making it seem that he was dropping out. On Wednesday morning, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who placed sixth despite having been born in Iowa and winning the Ames straw poll, dropped out, presumably to focus on winning reelection to Congress and to avoid going into debt, which she simply couldn't afford. Following Bachmann's announcement, Rick Perry sent out a "Tweet" suggesting he would campaign in South Carolina and compete in that state's January 21 primary. It's a confusing move by a candidate whose primary memorable attribute so far has been confusion.
If you haven't heard that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney beat former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum by 8 votes out of more than 122,000 votes cast, each gaining nearly 25 percent of the vote, well, you're probably Debbie Wasserman Schultz or some other Democrat living in your own Obama bubble. Texas Congressman Ron Paul came in third with about 21 percent of the ballots cast followed by Newt Gingrich in fourth place with 13 percent.
Despite his impressive showing, political bettors at Intrade.com are not taking Santorum seriously, with most candidates' betting odds barely changed from a few days earlier. As of Wednesday afternoon, Romney's odds of being the Republican nominee were down less than half a percent from prior to the Iowa results, trading around 81 percent. Santorum's odds were roughly unchanged, trading around 4.5 percent after a brief spike over 8 percent. Newt Gingrich was up slightly to about 6 percent while Ron Paul's odds were slightly lower, around 2.5 percent. Jon Huntsman's betting odds are up about one percent to over 4 percent. Rick Perry's odds remain around two percent, where he's been for a couple of weeks, and around two percent higher than his actual chances.
It can't make Rick Santorum happy that the day after his remarkable performance in Iowa, bettors don't give him more of a chance to be the Republican nominee than they give either Newt Gingrich or Jon Huntsman. Perhaps bettors simply understand Santorum better than Iowa caucus-goers do. More on this in a moment.
There could hardly have been a louder exclamation point from the "anybody but Romney" majority in Iowa. Indeed, if Gingrich, Perry, or Bachmann had not been in the race, Santorum would likely have won last night. (It is unclear to me which way Ron Paul supporters would have broken -- if they would have participated at all -- if their man were not in the hunt.) But even if Santorum had won -- and he might as well have, given how surprising his surge was -- would it matter?
Iowa has only picked the eventual nominee twice since 1980 (in contested primaries where there was not an incumbent Republican president), and Santorum's victory has an obvious parallel to Iowa's choosing Mike Huckabee in 2008: a majority of Iowa caucus participants are evangelical conservatives who are only modestly representative of Republicans in many other parts of the country much less the broader electorate.
Ron Paul's third place finish was, despite his brave talk, disappointing. A substantial share of his support came from non-Republicans who participated in the caucus, and some polls showed him in the lead less than a week before the caucuses. But once there was even modest focus on Ron Paul's foreign policy views and his past writings (or the past writings of others that Ron Paul nominally edited), people were turned off. Tuesday was the last serious noise Ron Paul will make, though he will remain in the race far past his welcome by the vast majority of Americans of any political stripe.
Regardless of the pop in his betting odds, Jon Huntsman is (or, more precisely, remains) toast despite a solid fiscally conservative record and a chance he'll come in second or third in New Hampshire; after all, he's basically living there. Ironically, Huntsman would have been better off in New Hampshire if Romney had had a clearer victory in Iowa. But Santorum's remarkable performance will suck much of the oxygen out of the room and make New Hampshire a one-week two-story media frenzy.
Romney's quasi-vulnerability in Iowa does not point to a large Huntsman opening in New Hampshire because Huntsman -- another good-looking wealthy Mormon ex-governor with a mostly undeserved image as a "moderate" -- is too superficially like Romney to be a credible part of the anti-Romney consortium. This despite having a better economic platform than Romney, and a sensible and principled opposition to protectionism -- unlike Romney and Santorum who both drift toward supporting tariffs in their populist pandering. Huntsman is putting an effort into New Hampshire much like Santorum put into Iowa. If only for that reason, you can't totally rule out a surprisingly strong finish. Unfortunately for the possibility of injecting more economic clarity into the debate, Jon Huntsman will have a difficult time getting any attention over the next week.
Similarly, Newt "I'm staying positive except for Romney" Gingrich will have a hard time locating a New Hampshire television camera interested in focusing on him -- unless he becomes ferociously negative, which seems his intended direction. Nearly half of the political ads run during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses were run against Newt Gingrich, most by a pro-Romney "Super PAC." So the real question regarding Gingrich, who has said he feels "Romney-boated" by those negative ads run against him, is how aggressively he will attack Romney and how long anybody will listen. Newt may end up seeming more like a Rick Santorum surrogate than a candidate in his own right. Gingrich's focused venom will accrue, if modestly, to the benefit of Santorum (who will take a more positive tone) -- far more than it will to Gingrich, who will be sacrificing what little political and actual capital he has left on a pyre of political vengeance.
EVEN THOUGH NEW HAMPSHIRE media is nominally not very expensive (as long as you don't buy ads on Boston television stations), most of the air time has already been purchased -- including the Romney campaign having spent more than $1 million on New Hampshire advertising. A report released Wednesday said that Rick Santorum has spent only about $31,000 in the Granite State. Santorum and Gingrich will have to do most of their fighting in debates, interviews, and perhaps newspaper ads. And once the contests move to larger states like South Carolina and especially Florida, the anti-Romneys will have a very difficult time competing without finding a way to massively increase their fund-raising -- which seems an unlikely occurrence, especially compared to the Romney war chest.
Mitt Romney remains, no matter what Newt Gingrich does, likely to win New Hampshire, which would make him the first Republican candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire -- and nobody in the 30-year history of those states leading off the primary/caucus season has won the Republican nomination without winning at least one of them.
The first big prize, however, is South Carolina, which is a winner-take-all contest unlike the proportional awarding of delegates from Iowa and New Hampshire. South Carolina has chosen the eventual Republican nominee in every election cycle since 1980, which means that it has not been won by a candidate who didn't take either Iowa or New Hampshire.
While South Carolina has a large evangelical Christian population, the Palmetto State should not be confused with Iowa in terms of its voters' behavior. In 2008, after Iowa went with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, South Carolina GOP primary voters chose John McCain who was neither the most conservative nor most religious candidate in the race. Political bettors at Intrade.com currently have Romney around 55 percent to win South Carolina, with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum roughly splitting the remaining 45 percent. Wednesday's endorsement of Mitt Romney by John McCain could offer modest benefit to Romney in South Carolina. (It will be interesting to see if Sarah Palin -- who John McCain made famous -- endorses Rick Santorum, for whom she has already offered complimentary words.)
If Romney wins South Carolina, the race is probably over. If he wins South Carolina and Florida (January 31), it's definitely over. This means that Anybody-But-Romney will need to go for Romney's jugular, something they all have been remarkably reticent to do so far in this campaign season. And if you think Newt has been aggressive in the last few days, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Hell hath no fury like a former Speaker scorned.
PUNDITS ROUTINELY TALK about Romney's weaknesses and wonder about his ability to take a punch. That analysis misses the mark.
On one hand, Romney seems a target-rich environment for criticisms of "flip-flops" or not being a solid, consistent conservative. On the other hand, what is there really about Romney's past dalliances with less than conservative views and policies that people don't already know, that we haven't been reminded of repeatedly in Republican debates? If voters hear yet again about Romneycare or that he's not as fervently anti-abortion or anti-gay as other Republicans, will they care? Beating Romney up with old information will cause voters to tune out those criticisms, thinking "Tell us something we don't know." (There also remains the possibility that the perception of being a "moderate" will be an advantage in a general election, limiting how much Republicans -- extremely motivated to beat Barack Obama -- will hold their social issues skepticism against him.)
For comparison, think about what just happened to Newt Gingrich. He jumped in the race and instantly became a co-front-runner despite people knowing about his having supported a health insurance mandate, being on his third wife -- after cheating with her on his second wife, and sitting on a couch with Nancy Pelosi to support an Al Gore-affiliated "global warming" alarmist organization. What really brought Newt down was the new information that he had earned $1.6 million dollars by giving "advice" to Freddie Mac, a poster child for the ongoing real estate collapse and ensuing financial turmoil that turned many people's 401Ks into 201Ks.
A similar story applies to Ron Paul, with the damage that the new information about his newsletters did to an apparent, if initially unlikely, path to win Iowa even while he was being allowed by his supporters to skate on his dangerous views on Iran.
While there is little reason to think that Rick Santorum has Gingrich-like skeletons in his closet, his position is nevertheless more similar to Newt's than to Romney's: Almost any bad information (or even rumor) about Santorum will be new information to most people. Furthermore, there is little in Santorum's flinty, holier-than-thou personality to make one think he will handle criticism well.
Negative information and opinion about Santorum is just beginning to come out, now that he's worth more than a fleeting thought. The Cato Institute's Michael Tanner wrote on Wednesday that Santorum is a "big-government conservative" and that the former senator's record "should give supporters of limited government considerable pause."
A few key points from Tanner:
• Santorum supports more government in our personal lives, especially when it comes to our children. "Among the many government programs he supported: national service, publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, and economic-literacy programs in 'every school in America' [italics in original]."
• Santorum supported the Medicare prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind.
• Santorum "never met an earmark he didn't like."
• Santorum "seldom even makes a pretense of tolerance" on social issues, a style that "will be far less well received" outside of Iowa.
James Delingpole, the incisive conservative British author and political columnist, puts it this way: "The truth is Rick Santorum is so left on the issues that matter he makes even Mitt Romney look like a red meat conservative. Be very afraid, Republican America."
SANTORUM'S MILITARY AND FOREIGN POLICY views contain troubling aspects as well, though he deserves credit for having taken an aggressive posture on Iran well before most other politicians and generally being well-versed on international issues. He reflexively opposes any cuts in military spending even though solid conservatives (such as Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman who served twice in Iraq for the U.S. Marines) recognize that just because a dollar is spent in the name of "national defense" does not mean it is spent wisely. The second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a case in point.
Taking a page right from the neocon playbook, Santorum insists on "victory" in Afghanistan and opposes any troop withdrawal, calling for "a strategy of success" but without defining what that strategy would look like. This stands in contrast to Mitt Romney's comment in a debate in June that he would like to "bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can" because "Americans cannot fight another nation's war of independence." This is an important debate, and one on which there is a substantial divide within the GOP, while independent and Democrat voters (and this author) share Romney's view.
Rick Santorum's aggressively anti-China rhetoric is naïve and dangerous; sadly that puts him in the company of Mitt Romney and Donald Trump. (Here as well, Jon Huntsman has the wisest position even though many or most Americans succumb to the economically ignorant and inherently xenophobic rhetoric of Santorum, Romney, Trump, et al.) But perhaps most worrisome is Santorum's belief in nation-building. He suggested in a recent speech that the British Empire collapsed because they "lost heart and faith in their heart in themselves and in their mission, who they were and what values they wanted to spread around the world." Of course, he's the guy to make sure that we remember our values -- which is to say his values -- and then risk our sons' and daughters' lives and our nation's treasury spreading them across the globe.
It's not that Rick Santorum's foreign policy views are that much worse, on balance, than most of the rest of the Republican field. They do, however, compose another piece in the puzzle showing a man who is indeed a "big government conservative," as if such a creature can or should really exist. He is conservative only in the ironic sense that he wants to use government to do things that conservatives tend to believe in more than liberals do. But if these views represent winning, then the conservative movement is already lost.
Santorum has one thing going for him, if he can keep it going: His late-night speech on Tuesday just before the final caucus results were known was, even if too long, a compelling message of his love of family and freedom. Romney's speech on the other hand was a less-than-engaging (and also too long) elaboration of policy talking points. Romney has to become less robotic, more genuine. Santorum has to moralize less and lose the permanently constipated facial expression. Both seem tall orders. Yes, Santorum showed his pearly whites from time to time in the friendly confines of Iowa, but I suspect he won't be able to maintain the smiling visage once the opposition research begins emerging.
THE MORE CONSERVATIVE VOTERS learn more about Rick Santorum, the less they will like him unless their only motivation is social issues. Given the twin foci of "electability" (even if you think that concept a political chimera) and the economy, and despite Santorum's economic policy positions having substantial merit (with the exception of his favoring of manufacturing over other forms of American business), Rick Santorum will not -- and should not -- be seen as tenable general election candidate.
An example from my state of Colorado comes to mind: In 2010, conservative Republican and Tea Party favorite Ken Buck won the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent Senator Michael Bennet who had been appointed to his seat after Sen. Ken Salazar became Barack Obama's Secretary of the Interior. Bennet was (and remains) a milquetoast, uninspiring senator whose most enduring image is his rushing up to Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to ask if he (Bennet) could, pretty please, change his vote after Schumer voted differently from Bennet.
Almost nobody thought that Bennet would beat Buck in a Republican "wave" year, although to be sure Colorado had its own top-of-the-ticket problems with its three-candidate governor's race. In the RealClearPolitics average of polls of the race, Buck ran ahead of Bennet consistently for five months (except for a brief period when they were tied) up to the November election. But Bennet soldiered on throughout with his key campaign strategy being to portray Ken Buck as "too extreme" for Colorado.
And then Buck proved Bennet right.
Buck, like Rick Santorum, publicly and repeatedly opposed any exception to an anti-abortion law for rape or incest. And less than three weeks before the election, Buck walked into a Meet the Press ambush: the show's moderator, David Gregory, asked Buck whether being gay is a choice. Buck, who should have said "This election is about jobs. Why are you wasting our time with this question?" not only answered yes, but then compared homosexuality to alcoholism.
It's not outrageous to think that there could be a genetic tendency that impacts sexual preference much as there seems to be a genetic aspect to alcoholism. But for Buck to say what he said, when and where he said it, simply proved to independent voters in Colorado that Buck was every bit the socially far-right caricature which the left tries to paint of almost all Republicans. Bennet narrowly defeated Buck to retain a U.S. Senate seat that should easily have gone Republican.
If Rick Santorum becomes the Republican nominee, he will be the 2012 Ken Buck, writ very large, with ads reminding people that Santorum compared homosexuality to "man on child [or] man on dog" behavior. He will lose women and independent voters in droves and give us four more years of Barack Hussein Obama, the damage from which I need not elaborate here.
The good news for Rick Santorum is that he's having his day in the sun. The bad news is that there is no political disinfectant like sunlight. It's time for the "anybody but Romney" crowd to either find a tenable candidate or start focusing on the one candidate who so far appears likely to beat Barack Obama. Rick Santorum doesn't fit either description.