Despite the close results and surge by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, the smart money is still on Mitt Romney emerging as the ultimate challenger to Barack Obama.
There might be a temptation to suggest that Iowa, with its quirky caucuses, is an aberration in the process. That is bolstered by 2008’s results which had Mike Huckabee finishing first, Mitt Romney second and the ultimate Republican nominee John McCain finishing a distant fourth.
One could argue that the dynamics of caucuses, which by their nature attract much more engaged and committed voters than a primary, would tend to bolster the campaigns of those who attract the party’s conservative and religious base.
But the results from Iowa other than from 2008 do not suggest that. You would have to go back to 1980 when George HW Bush narrowly defeated ultimate nominee Ronald Reagan, and 1988 when Bob Dole finished first and George Bush third to see Iowa caucuses that did not result in the ultimate nominee.
In both 1980 and 1988, the winner was formidable and an eventual party nominee. Certainly in 1988, the results showed George Bush’s early troubles that he would eventually overcome.
Moreover, in order to win caucuses, you have to have a strong organization or committed grassroots support, and that is perhaps what makes this year’s result most intriguing. Rick Santorum is merely the latest conservative and religious alternative to Mitt Romney.
The third-place finisher Ron Paul represents a different element altogether – a libertarian branch of the party that could become more formidable as time goes on.
The evangelicals coalesced behind Rick Santorum, helping him to the narrow second-place finisher. But, even that is too simplistic to be a true explanation. The polls showed, in fact, a split in the evangelical vote, with Santorum getting the largest share but still only about 34%, Ron Paul with 19%, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich took 14%, Rick Perry 13% and Michele Bachmann, the first culprit of the caucus, with 6%.
As one analyst for CNN put it, “The entrance polls seem to reflect an evangelical consensus against Romney, who won a plurality of Iowa’s non-evangelical caucus-goers, but it also reflects an evangelical disagreement over the best alternative to the former Massachusetts governor, considered to be the establishment candidate and the national front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.”
Many observers believe that if there is a chink in Mr. Romney’s armor it is the evangelicals, many of whom are uncomfortable with him due to his Mormon faith and suspicious of him due to the fact that he was once more socially liberal on issues like abortion.
Indeed, for Mr. Romney, his share of the evangelical vote fell from 19% in 2008 in Iowa to just 14% last night.
Still, it is tough to predict that this is going to be a long battle. After all, Mr. Santorum may have surged in Iowa, but he faces a much better financed opponent in Mitt Romney, and Mr. Santorum has serious viability problems of his own that are now going to become a huge focal point after his strong finish.
New Hampshire is notoriously independent, and polls indicate that the Iowa Caucuses will not be a huge factor there.
Prior to yesterday’s results, the smart money had Romney as 50-50 to win Iowa, but 79% to win the nomination. The closeness may cut into that result a bit, but overall the smart money should still favor Mitt Romney to become the nominee who challenges Barack Obama.
—David M. Greenwald reporting