So voters finally got into the act in the Republican presidential nominating contest, and the results from Iowa were about what anyone reading the late polls might have expected. With Ron Paul apparently taking a bit of a hit from bad publicity about his extremist past and attacks on his current foreign policy views by other candidates, he fell just short of Romney and Santorum, who almost literally tied. In many respects, the caucuses were a re-run of 2008: turnout was very much the same despite all the talk about a super-psyched GOP base; the composition of caucus-goers was very similar; and Mitt Romney got about the same number of votes. The main difference is that Romney spent much less time in Iowa than in 2008, and more crucially, the non-Romney vote was more divided. It’s also significant as a sign of politics to come that Mitt didn’t have to spend nearly as much of his own money in 2012, because a “Super PAC” supporting him did the dirty work of destroying Newt Gingrich’s credibility with Iowa conservatives (with some help from Ron Paul’s campaign).
The free-falling Gingrich campaign did have enough energy left to beat Rick Perry in Iowa (Newt got 13 percent of the vote, Perry 10 percent), dealing a huge blow to the candidate still generally thought to be the only enduring threat to a Romney nomination (Perry considered dropping out of the race Tuesday night, but reconsidered, probably after taking a good long look at the poor positioning of the rest of the field in South Carolina and Florida). Michele Bachmann, the winner of the Iowa GOP straw poll back in August, which croaked Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy, had the wheels fall off in the final week before the caucuses and finished a poor sixth, subsequently folding what was left of her campaign.
So technically, at least, Rick Santorum, who benefitted mightily from a last-minute consolidation of social conservative support, is the unlikely winner of the conservative-alternative-to-Romney sweepstakes that Iowa hosted for so many months. I qualify his victory because there are many doubts about his post-Iowa viability, and aside from Paul, who will be in the race to the bitter end, there remains a slim possibility that Perry or Gingrich can rise from the dead to attempt one more comeback when the calendar turns to the South after New Hampshire. Indeed, one of the grand ironies of this entire contest is that perceptions of Romney’s weakness have kept candidates in the field who are mainly keeping each other from consolidating non-Romney support.
Santorum has spent little time outside Iowa, and does not have deep pockets. More importantly, he’s a career politician with a domestic policy record that troubles some conservatives (notably pundit Erick Erickson, who has taken to attacking Santorum regularly and savagely). As a conservative Catholic, he has ties to evangelical activists via the anti-abortion movement (in which he is heavily involved, taking positions that won’t wear well with more moderate voters), but does not have the kind of natural connections to southern political culture that 2008 winner Mike Huckabee enjoyed.
Given Romney’s big lead in New Hampshire, it’s unlikely Santorum will take the time and money to seriously challenge him there, though Newt Gingrich is promising to launch a vengeful attack on Mitt in the Granite State. But the next critical (and perhaps final) phase of the campaign could well be played out behind the scenes, as conservative opinion-leaders decide whether or not to get behind Romney and end the contest before it gets truly ugly and expensive. South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, for example, could send a very big signal that the battle to deny Romney the nomination has become too dangerous for the conservative movement to sustain. A Romney win in the Palmetto State would pretty much wrap things up unless Mitt does or says something uncharacteristically stupid, though rivals (obviously Paul, probably Gingrich, and perhaps even Huntsman if he chooses to spend his family fortune) may stick around in case that happens.
It bears repeating at this point that there are few signs of a general-election “conservative revolt” against a Romney-led ticket, beyond a smattering of evangelicals who really don’t like Mormons. The best way to describe the wingnut mood about this contest is that a Romney nomination would deny them their ideal aspiration of a Goldwater-style candidacy (one, of course, that won this time) aimed at repealing the entire Great Society/New Deal legacy. But that would be considered a tactical setback other than an intolerable defeat, simply delaying the great-gittin’-up-morning they are convinced is on the horizon once those vote-buying socialists in the Democratic Party are driven from power. An early Romney nomination victory, on the other hand, might save the candidate a lot of heartburn by giving conservative activists time to heal their wounds and get used to him as the nominee, while limiting the gestures he will have to make to earn their enthusiastic support, if not their trust or affection.