Thursday, January 05, 2012

 

From Iowa to New Hampshire

Well, that was a result you don’t see very often! Out of 122,255 voters who turned out for the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney was declared the winner by 8 votes. Not percentage points – votes. Want to know how close that was? Early in the count, when Buddy Roemer (who he?) had managed to gather a vote tally of 9, he tweeted: “I almost have enough votes in Iowa to start a bowling league. #Roementum”. Roemer’s not-quite-enough-people-for-a-bowling-league could have flipped the result if they’d all voted differently. (Roemer ended up with 31 votes in total.)

Romney’s win was the closest primary victory ever. Intriguingly, it also represented – at 24.6% of the vote – a lower score than he got in Iowa in 2008, when his second place finish with 25% of the vote was considered a huge blow to his campaign. (A further amusing factoid: Romney 2008 beat Romney 2012 by a whole 6 votes. It seems that the intervening 4 years haven’t boosted his popularity much.)
Still, a win is a win! The Romney campaign had long downplayed the chances of success in Iowa, and he had focused more on New Hampshire until only a couple of weeks before the caucuses; at that point, no-one was expecting him to win at all, so compared to early expectations a victory of any sort is a big achievement. In the last couple of weeks, however, his team inexplicably allowed expectations for a strong finish to creep up; having done so, a bad result would have been very embarrassing. He avoided that outcome. Romney was a winner in Iowa. Third-placed Ron Paul, too, was a winner, albeit somewhat less of one. The losers, clearly, were Newt Gingrich (4th), Rick Perry (5th) and Michele Bachmann (6th), all of whom had hoped to do much better. The biggest winner of Iowa, however, was the man that Romney so narrowly beat: former senator Rick Santorum, who until a couple of weeks ago no right-minded person could have considered a serious candidate.
This is quite a remarkable achievement for him. He was in Congress for 16 years – a congressman from 1990 to 1994, then a senator for two terms after that – but that all came to an end in the Democratic swing of 2006. Pennsylvania didn’t just gently swing out from under his feet: it violently bucked him off, giving a landslide 18-point victory to his opponent, the largest ever margin of defeat for a sitting senator in that state. Since then he’s mostly been carping on the sidelines as a Fox News commentator. His candidacy was completely implausible.
His two-week transition from afterthought to leading contender didn’t come because of anything he did. That’s not to say that he hasn’t been working hard: he certainly has, traversing Iowa relentlessly, braving terrible weather and tiny crowds to try to get his message across. But his success has less to do with him than it has to do with timing. As the least exciting contender in Iowa, voters hungry for a non-Romney candidate had cycled through every single other option. (Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich, Paul and indeed Herman Cain all held an Iowa poll lead at some point in the last six months.) In each case, the glare of publicity highlighted the candidate’s flaws, and voters moved on. After Gingrich was decimated by negative attention from everyone, the only non-Romney candidate left was Santorum – and with Gingrich crashing in the last week before Christmas, just as voters turned their attention away from politics, Santorum’s lift came too late for him to be vulnerable to attacks from other candidates or exposés from the media. There simply wasn’t enough time to scrutinise and attack him before the vote. He crested at the perfect time.
So he can hardly be credited with being the architect of his own success. Now he faces some huge problems. First is the problem of scrutiny: now that voters, opponents and the media are really looking at him, they may find plenty of things to dislike. (As he is a rich lawyer with an inside-the-beltway profile and close ties to lobbyists, his opponents shouldn’t find it too hard to find ways to attack.) Second is the challenge of moving beyond Iowa. He has poured all of his effort into campaigning in Iowa, but now he must succeed in other places too. He will campaign in New Hampshire, then South Carolina and Florida, and possibly beyond, but his organisation is very thin in those places. He needs to pull together large teams of staff and volunteers to deliver leaflets, organise and promote campaign stops, make adverts and get out voters, and he doesn’t have much time to do it; the rival campaigns of Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Perry are much better organised.
But he has opportunities now too. With success in Iowa comes the vital oxygen of media exposure and attention: he will now find it much easier to get his message across to voters and to raise money. Bachmann’s supporters may well tend to gravitate towards him, and now that he’s had a good result he may well round up many of the anti-Romney votes currently attached to Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. The crucial thing he gets is momentum: while he may not do well in New Hampshire, where his brand of social conservatism is not strong, he has a very good chance to win South Carolina on January on January 21st. If he can do that, he will become the only serious anti-Romney candidate, and given Romney’s ongoing lack of appeal to Republican voters, that seems like a clear path to the nomination. In other words, if Rick Santorum can avoid collapsing under pressure, in a scandal or through disorganisation, he could go all the way.
Mitt Romney has a different challenge. His win in Iowa is a boost, although he would have preferred a higher margin of victory. Polls show him likely to sweep New Hampshire on January 10th. Those two victories will give him a lot of momentum going into South Carolina, where he is already starting to campaign. The challenge for him, then, is to keep on winning; given his superior resources and the benefits of momentum, that should be possible. Rolling out a sequence of big endorsements from Republican heavyweights will help create a sense of inevitability: he received John McCain’s today. The biggest threat will be if all the voters opposing him coalesce around a single candidate: for that reason, expect to see a lot of negative advertising coming from him towards Rick Santorum in the coming two weeks, as soon as his teams manage to pull some together. (Santorum’s leap into front-runner status was so unexpected that it might take a few days to get them ready.)
Romney is clearly the man to beat. He has avoided an embarrassing defeat in Iowa and looks set to win strongly in New Hampshire. But he still isn’t polling amazingly well for a front-runner, meaning that he is clearly beatable. The other campaigns will now seek to bring him down any way they can.
Newt Gingrich will be landing the sharpest blows in the next week. Incensed by what he sees as unfair attacks from Romney in Iowa, he has made clear that the gloves will now be coming off. (He made this clear in the Newtest possible way: after accusing Romney of being a liar, he pledged not to run negative ads, and then – practically in the same breath – promised that his ads would “tell the truth”, i.e. be negative.) Gingrich has probably been so badly damaged by his time in the spotlight that his campaign will be irrecoverable, but he still has enough energy, media attention and money for the thrashes of his lengthy death throes to hurt. He has already lit into Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate” as well as a “liar”, and we’ll see a lot more of this in the next couple of weeks. Crucially, Gingrich’s biggest strength has been his debate performances, and more debates have been scheduled for the coming days. Expect plenty of headlines, but probably not another comeback. Unless Gingrich can get a solid top-three finish in New Hampshire, his downward trajectory will continue.
Another candidate hoping for a strong showing in New Hampshire is Jon Huntsman, who abandoned Iowa to focus on New Hampshire single-mindedly, and has been criss-crossing the state for some time. He will be hoping to pull off a Santorum-style last minute surge as the anyone-but-Romney favourite, but Santorum may well have beaten him to that moniker; his moderate profile isn’t well suited to firing up the Republican base in any event. The next few days will be crucial. Again, without a strong top-three finish in New Hampshire, his campaign will be over, and without a surprisingly strong second place finish he won’t get far beyond New Hampshire anyway. If it goes badly for him on the 10th, expect him to drop out pretty quickly, adding another case study to the folder of examples of why it’s a bad idea to skip states altogether at the start of the primary season. (Ask Rudy Giuliani if you need more info on how that strategy fails to work out.)
Ron Paul came in a creditable third in Iowa, winning only a few thousand votes fewer than Santorum and Romney. While he had hoped for better, third place is still pretty good for a candidate with policies as radical as his are. He’ll now be hoping to improve upon third place in New Hampshire, where polls currently have him a strong second. With Gingrich, who is on his way down, polling in third, and Huntsman, who has a standing start, polling in fourth, and with Santorum having to jump forward from a very low base to get a good result, Paul has a very clear shot at getting a strong second place finish in New Hampshire. That would give him a big boost by proving that Iowa wasn’t just a one-off: his campaign strategy is very much intact and his volunteer numbers and fundraising will be as healthy as ever. His destination remains unclear – he doesn’t have a plausible path to winning the nomination given how anathema most of his policies are to most Republican voters – but he is still moving forward at a good speed. I remain suspicious (hopeful?) that he will eventually transfer his momentum from the Republican primary process into a third party candidacy.
Rick Perry is the other serious contender still in the race. He did badly in Iowa, coming in fifth; his only consolation is that he did at least beat Michele Bachmann quite substantially. His initial reaction was one of uncertainty: he called off plans to head directly to South Carolina and went home to Texas instead to reassess his strategy. This is usually a codeword for deciding to leave the race, a possibility that people in his campaign had hinted would be the outcome of a bad result in Iowa. Many – myself included – thought that this was probably what he would do. In the event, however, he reconsidered and is now going to South Carolina after all. This is probably a good decision. While he did quite badly in Iowa, the field is still quite unsettled and a lot of things could happen, so it’s not hard to see a plausible path for him to get to the nomination. Consider this: he still has enough funds to get him through South Carolina, especially if he completely avoids New Hampshire (where he is polling dead last among the major candidates). He also has a good organisation already built up in South Carolina. He can leverage these assets to win if the conditions are right. New Hampshire will hurt several of the other campaigns: most likely, Gingrich, but also possibly Santorum, who may squander much of his momentum in a noisy but unsuccessful push there. If Santorum comes in fourth, fifth or sixth in New Hampshire, it would weaken his grip on many of his supporters: they, together with Gingrich’s and Bachmann’s supporters and Perry’s own respectable base in South Carolina, could give him a winning coalition. In other words, if Santorum stumbles in New Hampshire, Gingrich continues to fade, and Huntsman drops out, the anyone-but-Romney mantle might fall back on to Perry’s shoulders. In a race this unsettled, there’s enough of a chance of this to warrant Perry staying in, at least until South Carolina votes.
Alas for Michele Bachmann, that kind of plausible way forward didn’t really exist for her. Her strategy was to ride momentum out of Iowa, but she came in dead last out of the candidates who were running. She didn’t have much money on hand, she’d been losing staff and didn’t have strong organisations in the next states, and her poll numbers were terrible. It was possible to see her soldiering on simply out of sheer willpower, but her path to the nomination seemed closed. The decision to drop out was sensible. Her supporters will probably now mostly be picked up by Santorum – but by this point, there aren’t many of them. Fans of a sensible discourse in politics will be cheered to see her go: she will be remembered mostly as a crazy lady. But at least she will be remembered as a lady: with her departure, we are now faced – yet again – with a candidate line-up which is exclusively male, and post Herman Cain, exclusively white. That’s not something to be glad about.
To sum up then: moving into New Hampshire, the candidates’ priorities will be as follows. Romney needs to win big and survive the intensified attacks from other candidates, especially Gingrich; Santorum needs to build on his momentum from Iowa and steal enough voters from other candidates to achieve a respectable third or fourth place finish at least; Paul needs to maintain his steady pace with a good second-place finish; Gingrich needs to arrest his decline and come in the top three, which he will try to do by being nasty and winning debates; Huntsman needs a credible top two or three finish to have any kind of way forward; and Perry needs Gingrich and Santorum to do badly. If they do badly, expect Huntsman (definitely) and Gingrich (possibly) to drop out. Bring on January 10th!

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