The 2012 presidential election will be all about the economy. The Iowa caucuses weren’t.
Don’t expect the rest of the Republican primary campaign to be, either.
In an election year characterized by intense and widespread anxiety about jobs and growth, the results from Iowa on Tuesday night showed GOP voters rendering little discernible judgment on the candidates’ prescriptions for the ailing U.S. economy.
Mitt Romney’s eight-vote victory over Rick Santorum wasn’t a win for cutting the corporate tax rate to 25 percent (as Romney proposes) instead of 17.5 percent (as Santorum favors). There’s no unifying characteristic of the economic proposals offered by Iowa’s top-finishing trio of Romney, Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul, other than their general conservatism; the three plans differ sharply on core economic issues, including how much to cut taxes, how deeply to slash the federal budget, and how to spur new investment in America.
The only big distinction between those economic plans and the ones offered by Iowa’s lower-finishing candidates—Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann—is that the also-rans all favored some form of a flat tax. (Paul would eliminate income taxes altogether.)
But the differences in economic policy aren’t driving the wedge in this race, polls from the caucuses suggest. Instead, what Republicans have on their hands now, and will likely have until the party rallies around a nominee to face President Obama, is another chapter in a longstanding struggle among ideological factions within their party—factions including social conservatives, libertarians, business leaders, and the GOP political establishment.
If you’re waiting for a contest decided on economic issues, in other words, you should probably start looking ahead to November.
It’s not that Republican primary voters aren’t worried about the economy. Nearly nine in 10 Iowa Republicans called U.S. economic conditions “somewhat poor” or “very poor” in a University of Iowa poll last month, and in caucus entrance polls, four in 10 called the economy their top concern. Recent polls show about half of New Hampshire and South Carolina Republicans rate the economy as their top concern.
But when it comes to picking a presidential nominee, Iowa voters fractured on entirely unrelated lines. Santorum, for example, won a plurality of caucus-goers who expressed support for the tea party movement, entrance polls showed, while Romney won a plurality among opponents of the movement. The same was true among born-again/evangelical Christians: Santorum won a plurality of the group, and Romney won a plurality of those who said they weren’t born-again or evangelical.
Perhaps the starkest divide came on the question of what caucus-goers were looking for most in a presidential candidate. Republicans fractured into three large groups—those seeking a “true conservative,” someone who can “beat Obama,” or someone with “strong moral character.” Romney dominated the “beat Obama” group. Santorum and Paul essentially split the “true conservative” crowd, and Santorum won big among “strong moral character” seekers.
Expect those lines to harden as the race narrows. Iowa gave every indication that the Republican nomination will be decided on the timeless question of ideology versus electability. There’ll be plenty of time to crunch numbers, and talk jobs plans, in the general election.