Mitt Romney’s eight-vote victory in the Iowa caucuses may or may not mean much. Delegate selection is proportional, and Iowa has often been a negative indicator, especially on the GOP side. Nevertheless, like Scott, I have a few observations on the current state of the race.
First, Scott may be right that Romney is a weak front-runner in that there is a large and stubborn segment of the Republican electorate that is determined to vote for someone else. That is the way it looks now, anyway; the stubbornness of that group may not be so clear after the next few primaries.
Second, it is not hard to see why Romney did not excel in Iowa (notwithstanding his narrow win). According to Jay Cost’s numbers, 58% of yesterday’s Republican caucus-goers described themselves as born-again Christians, and Romney carried only 14% of that demographic. Small wonder, then, that his share of the total vote was around 25%. If my arithmetic is right, he must have received 40% of the non-born again vote, which strikes me as a good showing given the number of contenders.
These data suggest that the long-reported evangelical suspicion of Mormons is real, and is likely to continue to prove a problem in states where the number of evangelicals is large. In the general election, however–assuming Romney is the nominee–I think the number of evangelicals who stay home and pass up the chance to vote against Barack Obama will be very small.
Third, the most immediate significance of the Iowa caucuses is that they killed off two briefly important campaigns–those of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (Perry’s campaign is only de facto killed off, as, after a quick “reassessment,” he announced he would stay in the race). Iowa can now claim three scalps, since it was the Iowa straw poll that precipitated Tim Pawlenty’s withdrawal from the race. It seems odd that these candidates are the very ones who, on paper, could have been expected to do well in Iowa.
Fourth, the remainder of the GOP campaign will be molded in important ways by the changes the party made when it modified its rules for 2012. After 2008, there was a consensus that the nominee was being selected too quickly, as states kept moving primaries up on the calendar, and the race was effectively over after within a matter of weeks. The Republican Party addressed this perception by cutting back on early, winner-take-all primaries:
Any presidential primary, caucus, convention, or other meeting held for the purpose of selecting delegates to the national convention which occurs prior to the first day of April in the year in which the national convention is held, shall provide for the allocation of delegates on a proportional basis.
One commentator explained:
National GOP rules for 2012 are designed to slow the rush to judgment that has characterized recent Republican nominating contests and to give more states a chance to have their voices heard. … to David Norcross, the former chairman of the rules committee of the Republican National Committee (RNC), the change is “majestically simple.” For a decade, Republican rules makers considered an array of complex plans to arrest “front-loading,” including ones where states would vote in inverse order of size. But with the elimination of pre-April winner-take-all events in 2012, many GOP officials hope that they have not only found a simple way to slow down the nominating process but also to encourage states to hold their primary or caucus well after Super Tuesday.
In fact, however, as of Super Tuesday, 22 states will have held their primaries or caucuses, and by April 1, 31 states will have chosen their delegates–all of them using proportional representation.
Unless I am missing something, this ought to ensure that the GOP race remains interesting for some time to come. Even if Romney wins the first few primaries, it seems unlikely that the opponents then remaining in the race–some of them, anyway–will collapse. Rather, they will be on a path to winning a significant number of delegates. If opposition to Romney among a substantial portion of the party’s base is as persistent as it now looks, the other candidates will have every incentive to stay in the race. It seems entirely possible, even likely, that as of April 1, with most of the convention delegates chosen, Romney will have garnered well under one-half of them. If that is the case, the race could stay interesting for a long time.
That is how it looks to me, anyway.