Advancing a Free Society

Iowa Thoughts

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

We have a process for choosing our President and it’s quintessentially American, beginning on a cold winter night in the Heartland with 120,000-or-so Iowans gathering in 1,784 precincts, each scribbling on a blank paper ballot the man or woman they want to lead the nation.

If that caucus procedure sounds arcane, consider what happens once pundits puree the results. A candidate can win and still “lose”; some campaigns are deemed d.o.a. despite still registering a pulse.

(Click here for detailed results)

My thoughts on what we learned Tuesday night . . .

Strategic winners:

  1. Rick Santorum (duh). He rose to within an eyelash of the top by . . . staying put – working each and every Hawkeye county (99 in all) and surviving 381 speeches and town-hall meetings. In the game of musical chairs that was the changing leaderboard among the non-Romneys in the GOP field, Santorum had the good fortune to be the one sitting when the music stopped. Not until the late innings in Iowa did Santorum’s Senate record come under attack. That will change in New Hampshire very fast (here are two Democratic assaults on Santorum from back in 2006 and his losing Senate effort). Santorum did commit one gaffe on Tuesday night: he waited until after midnight, EDT, to show up at his “victory” rally – perhaps costing him some free exposure in New Hampshire’s time zone.
  2. Mitt Romney.  Sure, there was the mindboggling closeness of the votes (his 8-vote win is one-tenth of one percent, out of some 122,200 ballots cast – the narrowest contest prior to this: 1980’s Republican surprise). All along, the Romney camp’s biggest fear, post Iowa, was a week of bad press after an embarrassingly weak showing (a face-losing fourth or worse). Obviously, that didn’t happen. Romney was the Iowa tortoise – he didn’t raise expectations as he did four years ago.  He also didn’t improve on his numbers from 2008, with three out of four caucus-goers once again voting for someone not named Mitt. Given that Romney’s campaigned virtually non-stop since the last presidential race, his Groundhog Day performance spells potential trouble in terms of motivating what would seem to be an unenthusiastic base – if Romney turns out to be the nominee.

Strategic loser:

  1. Rick Perry. The Texas governor invested $4 million into a media effort to reverse his sinking fortunes. In Iowa, he had amassed roughly 12,600 votes – 10% of the overall turnout.  Do the math: that’s in the neighborhood of $320 per vote. By comparison, U.S. Senate hopeful Linda McMahon spent $46 million on less than 500,000 votes in Connecticut in 2010 (like Iowa, a small state – but one with far more expensive media expensive media), or about $97 a “yea”. Things really are bigger in Texas.
  2. Ethanol. Quietly, and with little fanfare this weekend, the federal tax credit for corn-based ethanol expired. There was a time when a presidential hopeful’s opposing ethanol subsidies was akin to touching the third rail in Iowa – like being anti-lobster in Maine. Except for some lip service given to the topic at a November candidates’ forum, ethanol wasn’t a defining issue in this year’s vote. The times, they are a-changin’.

Also worth noting:

  1. Whither New Hampshire? Historically, New Hampshire is the Granite yin to a Hawkeye yang. Ronald Reagan lost in Iowa to the elder George Bush in 1980. Reagan took back his microphone – and the race – in New Hampshire. Eight years later, Bush lost in Iowa but recovered in New Hampshire. The man he defeated in 1988, Bob Dole, won the Iowa caucuses in 1996 and then dropped the New Hampshire primary to Patrick Buchanan. In 2000, the younger George Bush won in Iowa, and then lost in New Hampshire to John McCain, with McCain doing the opposite in 2008. 2012 could continue the pattern, offering a more decisive verdict assuming Romney maintains his sizeable lead.  But will it have the same drama as past New Hampshire contests? That depends on how well Santorum transitions to a different stage -- and handles the pressure of attacks ads and press scrutiny.
  2. Wither Iowa? You can already hear the criticism – 120,000 Republicans, a majority of them white, pious and socially conservative, setting the tone for a national election. Not to mention six hours of low-tech fumbling and bumbling to count the ballots. We get this every four years: a cry for a different primary system. Some advocate a rotating regional primary stem. A scheme I’ve floated in the past: hold off the voting until February, and then commence with the same four early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and either Florida or Nevada) before shifting into six weeks of multi-state primaries.
  3. Money. Candidates celebrated the returns on Tuesday. The following day, the ones with good news to share worked the phones, looking for a cash infusion. The GOP field has until the 20th of this month – the day before the vote in South Carolina – to report the haul for the last three months of 2011. Perry and Romney dominated the last round of financing – $17 million and $14 million, respectively – with no other GOP hopeful taking in at least $5 million. The names to watch come three Fridays from now: Gingrich and Santorum. Awaiting the remaining candidates at the month’s end is an expensive primary in Florida.

As they said in The Right Stuff: “no bucks, no Buck Rogers”.