By Nick DAngelo
The term “…So Goes the Nation” is traditionally attributed to the swing state of Ohio. But prior to the Buckeye State, the honor of “bellwether state” had been bestowed on Delaware, Kentucky, Nevada, Wisconsin and Maine, the original holder after the decisive 1840 election of Benjamin Harrison. The term has also been linked to the presidential primaries, often handed off after decisive primary contests: As goes Iowa, As goes New Hampshire, As goes South Carolina. But will the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, the first votes cast for the 2012 Republican nominee for President of the United States, hold any special value? What do last week’s results mean for the rest of the primary season?
Iowa is commonly given a reputation as an evangelical stronghold—a breeding ground for far-right social conservatism. And while that may be true for some of the state’s 99 counties, it is far from totally accurate. In fact, in the 2010 Republican primary for governor, the Iowa GOP voted for establishment candidate Terry Branstad over the Tea Party favorite Bob Vander Plaats by a 10-point margin. Prior to that, Iowa had been led by one of the nation’s most prominent Democratic governors, and handed Barack Obama her seven electoral votes in 2008. By some definition it’s a swing state, won by social conservatives only when support is solidly behind a single candidate, such as Mike Huckabee last cycle. 2012, as with so many other things, was different. The social conservative, far-right religious wing of the Republican Party was fractured between four candidates: Rep. Michele Bachmann, Gov. Rick Perry, Speaker Newt Gingrich and eventual stalwart Sen. Rick Santorum. Because of this failure to settle on a singular candidate, Mitt Romney was able to stagger to victory by an embarrassing eight votes.
In 2008, Romney bet it all on Iowa. In August 2007, he won the largely symbolic Ames Straw Poll, besting evangelical favorite Mike Huckabee by double digits. But six months later he garnered only 25.19 percent of the caucus vote, finishing a distant second. He would go on to place second again in New Hampshire, and end his campaign two months later. In 2012, with no evangelical-backed candidate, Romney won even when he was expected to lose.
He even received fewer votes than he had in 2008, down to 24.55 percent. Rick Santorum received 24.54 percent. Out of 122,255 votes cast, Romney won by eight—less than 0.01 percent—to a man who was given no chance of success one month ago and who has, nationally, hardly polled over five percent.
Although Mitt Romney only narrowly beat out Rick Santorum by a margin of 0.1% to win the Iowa caucus he easily defeated not only Santorum (who earned 9.6% of the vote), but Newt Gingrich (9.7%), Jon Huntsman (16.9%) and Ron Paul (23.2%) to win the New Hampshire primary with 38.4% of the vote making him the definitive Republican frontrunner.
Romney’s embarrassing victory shows two things: 1. The Republican Party still does not like the former Massachusetts governor and 2. Retail politics still matters. But since his assumed-candidacy took shape last year, Romney has had a surprisingly difficult job of appealing to the majority of our party.
He is the eventual nominee, the one with the best chance of winning, the one with the most name recognition and largest Rolodex of donors, the most cash-on-hand and largest resume of establishment endorsers, and yet hoards of the GOP instead chose a man who lost his 2006 reelection by double-digits.
We have a major problem. Secondly, in an age of mass media and YouTube viral ads, Iowa proved that grass root support can still make the difference. Santorum invested heavily in Iowa, traveling the state’s 99 counties relentlessly by pick-up truck and holding some 381 town hall events. In total, he has raised and spent $1.1 million, and currently has less than $200,000 cash-on-hand. Despite that abysmal fundraising, and because of tough groundwork, he is now the right-wing guardian of the Party, with Perry and Gingrich standing behind him, all of them with the common goal of taking down perhaps the only hope of defeating President Obama in 2012: Mitt Romney.
Most importantly though, what does this mean for the next contest in New Hampshire? While this article will be printed after the Jan. 10 contest, my take is that Santorum will not be a factor and is moving on to South Carolina. Ron Paul and Gingrich, because of their respective third and fourth place finishes, far below expectations, may be less likely to do well in the Granite State, although Paul still has a solid base of support there.
For those looking to take down Romney, their best shot may be Gov. Jon Huntsman—the only candidate who has gambled everything on New Hampshire and the one who has spent the most time there. Even so, most expect a Romney victory in New Hampshire to give him additional momentum moving into the crucial South Carolina primary, his last big duel with the far right.
So, in this case, “As goes Iowa will most likely go the Republican contest.” It exemplified what we all already knew. Despite the perfect campaign, the foot soldiers of the Republican Party will go down fighting the all-but-certain nominee, and even then will only support him by the slimmest of margins.