DES MOINES, Iowa—The caucuses here may have reshuffled the cast, but they didn’t change the script that has guided the tumultuous GOP presidential contest over the past year. As before, two basic truths shape the Republican race: First, Mitt Romney is performing solidly but not spectacularly as the front-runner. And second, the conservatives in the overlapping tea party and evangelical Christian circles, who are most skeptical of him, still have not consolidated around an alternative who might derail him. “The big picture has yet to be altered, which is that Romney is a weak front-runner and everybody else is trying to become the alternative,” said veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who advises a super PAC supporting former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Iowa deepened each of those dynamics. Romney’s victory was nothing more than workmanlike: He won more or less by standing still. Against a much less formidable field than 2008, Romney this time captured almost exactly the same 25 percent share of the vote as he did while losing the state to Mike Huckabee four years ago. (He won nearly the same number of total votes as in 2008, too.) That modest performance is encouraging hope among Romney’s critics that his support tops out at about one-fourth to one-third of the GOP electorate. “The Romney ceiling has got to be the big story out of Iowa,” insisted conservative activist Erick Erickson, publisher of RedState.
But Iowa also underscored the huge hurdles facing Romney’s opponents. The challenges include his big lead in New Hampshire and a financial advantage so commanding that on Wednesday, Romney’s campaign became the first to air television ads in Florida, a potentially decisive contest (still four weeks away) where advertising often rules.
As Romney’s team hoped, the Iowa result hobbled the two candidates it feared the most—Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry—while elevating the two rivals it believes are least capable of waging a true national challenge: Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Paul, with his purist libertarian message, has an ardent but limited following. And although Santorum appealed to the conservatives who are most dubious of Romney (particularly evangelical Christians), the former senator didn’t unify those voters nearly as much as Huckabee did. (He got 32 percent of their votes, compared with Huckabee’s 46 percent four years ago.) In the contests ahead, the underfunded and lightly staffed Santorum also won’t be able to replicate his Iowa strategy of virtually taking up residence in the state for a year. “He will get a hell of a bump” from his Iowa finish, said top GOP strategist Mike Murphy, who is neutral in the race, “but he has so much to do so fast.”
If Iowa gave Romney any real headaches, it’s because the state may have over-performed its historic job of winnowing the presidential field. The caucus results prompted Michele Bachmann to quit the race on Wednesday morning, less than 12 hours after Romney was declared the narrow winner. And although Perry has apparently reversed his initial inclination to examine withdrawing, the fact that he considered it underscores how much his fifth-place finish damaged his viability. Those developments should increase Santorum’s prospects, starting in South Carolina on January 21, of unifying evangelical Christian voters who resisted Romney last time and showed no sign of warming to him in Iowa. “Romney’s fear
is that this consolidates,” Keith Nahigian, Bachmann’s campaign manager, said before she withdrew.
Evangelical voters alone would not be enough to make Santorum a genuine threat to Romney. But if Santorum, with his regular-guy persona and lunch-bucket message of restoring American manufacturing, can also make significant inroads with the growing number of blue-collar Republicans, he may be able to cause the polished and affluent Romney some anxious moments—even if the odds are now strongly in the latter’s favor. “Usually, you win hearts and the head follows,” said longtime New Hampshire GOP activist Tom Rath, who is supporting Romney. “This may be a time when we win heads and the hearts will follow. Diana Ross was right: ‘You can’t hurry love.’ ”
HOW IT HAPPENED
The historically narrow Iowa result marked another twist in what has been the most mercurial Republican nomination fight since 1940.
The race started as slowly as did the agonizing trickle of results on Tuesday night, and with a lot less suspense. Potentially formidable candidates such as Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels, Huckabee, and Chris Christie all passed. In contrast to four years ago, when the contenders launched robust ground operations and media blitzes nearly a year before the caucuses, this Iowa contest didn’t congeal until the fall—and even then it didn’t generate anything approaching the organizational, financial, or time commitments of previous races.
The contenders took turns surging to the top of the polls, only to crash and burn shortly thereafter. Iowa seemed less a separate theater than simply the stage on which the national drama played out. Bachmann’s straw-poll win last summer was immediately eclipsed by Perry’s entry into the race; Perry stumbled badly in nationally televised debates; Herman Cain sunk amid allegations of sexual misconduct; and Gingrich was buried in attack ads launched by a pro-Romney super PAC.
By the time the caucuses arrived, only Santorum and Paul were left standing to threaten Romney, but neither of them could muster a conservative coalition as sweeping as Huckabee did in 2008. “Nobody had anything close to a machine here,” observed Jerry Hays, 72, who ruled out Gingrich after seeing him deliver a flat, sour speech at a bottling plant in Atlantic.
The void left Romney with a narrow opening, and he seized it. After months of running a stealth campaign in Iowa to dampen expectations about his performance, he quickly ramped up his presence. He invested only a fraction of the time and money he plowed into the state in 2008, but it didn’t seem to matter: He attracted the same share of the vote he received in 2008, which was just enough to put him on top.
Romney could be the first non-president in the modern system to win both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Iowa voters divided in a way that reaffirmed the basic pattern evident in polls throughout the last year, both nationally and in the key early states. Romney enjoyed reasonable, but not decisive, success in consolidating the party’s most pragmatic and secular elements: He led (with 38 percent) among voters who did not identify as evangelical Christians and with those who identified as somewhat conservative (33 percent); he also beat Paul among those who said they were neutral about the tea party (with 32 percent). But Romney continued to struggle with the GOP’s more ardent voices. He carried just one in seven among evangelicals, strong tea party supporters, and those who identified as “very conservative.” All of those groups favored Santorum; but in each case, the former senator attracted only about one-third of their support—enough to match Romney but not enough to pull away from him. In that way, Iowa raised questions about the depth of conservative resistance to Romney and whether any of his rivals can fully exploit it.
Conversations with dozens of voters this week found that Romney’s flush campaign, poise in nationally televised debates, and trained focus on President Obama persuaded them that he would be the strongest challenger. Voters also see his business experience as a crucial advantage in a race that will turn on Obama’s stewardship of the economy.
Distrust of the health care program that Romney passed in Massachusetts, and of his conservative convictions, remained a hurdle for many. Some Christian voters acknowledged discomfort with his Mormon religion. But Romney’s broader problem is that the buttoned-down former management consultant and multimillionaire failed to forge a personal connection with a broad swath of voters. “I don’t like him. I don’t even know why,” said Allen Fann, a 74-year-old retiree from Atlantic. “He comes off as a plastic person, gives off the feeling he’s above us.”
Romney’s awkwardness on the stump will mean less in bigger states such as Florida, where television matters much more. And Santorum can’t replicate his strategy of burrowing into Iowa—he spent 105 days there, and Romney aides joked that he had “run for governor.” On the eve of the caucuses, Santorum patiently posed for a picture with his wife amid a throng of supporters at a Pizza Ranch. He reminded an elderly woman that she had gotten his picture a couple of days ago. “Not with her,” she responded, gesturing toward his wife.
Santorum liked to say he had courted Iowa voters and wasn’t “speed-dating,” but that’s exactly what he needs to do in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida to take advantage of his newfound momentum.
WHAT COMES NEXT
Like so much else over the past year, Iowa simultaneously suggested that Romney can be beaten and that no one in this field is likely to beat him.
Despite his pedestrian performance in Iowa, Romney’s rivals face the formidable weight of history as the race moves to New Hampshire. The Republican nominating process assumed its modern form in 1980, when the Iowa caucuses launched in their current format and South Carolina advanced its primary to follow soon after Iowa and New Hampshire as the first vote in the South. Since then, every contested fight has followed the same pattern: One candidate won Iowa, a second candidate won New Hampshire, then one of those two won South Carolina—and the nomination.
Romney’s large and consistent lead in the New Hampshire polls puts him in position to become the first non-president to win each of the first two Republican contests under the modern system. If he does that, South Carolina on January 21 could quickly become a do-or-die battlefield for his rivals—especially given the financial advantage that he is already deploying in Florida, which votes 10 days later. “Romney has got all of the cards now,” said Murphy, the GOP strategist. “If I’m Romney, I’m thinking I want to win New Hampshire and I want to break everybody’s neck in Florida.”
Dynamics can change fast during the nomination process, but Romney’s position in New Hampshire looks to be somewhere between imposing and impregnable. (See “Romney’s Gamble,” p. 33.) Polls released this week showed the former Massachusetts governor leading his rivals by 30 percentage points or more. Because independents can vote in the New Hampshire primary, Paul’s appeal beyond the traditional GOP core could help him make waves; but as everywhere else, his New Hampshire support is defined more by its depth than its breadth. Huntsman, despite an enormous investment of time and money, hasn’t lit a genuine spark yet. Gingrich may now be on a kamikaze mission to damage Romney, but his own standing in New Hampshire has eroded, as it did in Iowa. And while Santorum could receive a lift from his strong Iowa showing, he was drawing only about 5 percent in New Hampshire surveys before the caucuses.
In Florida, Romney benefits from a different advantage: his huge war chest. He ended the third quarter, according to federal figures, with nearly $15 million in cash-on-hand, compared with less than $200,000 for Santorum. The Pennsylvanian’s team says that his strong Iowa showing inspired a surge of contributions, but the disparity remains gargantuan, especially considering that he may also have to fend off attacks from the lavishly funded Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future.
Santorum’s financial disadvantage is especially perilous because Florida doles out more delegates than all of the earlier voting states combined and will be closely watched as the first diverse, mega-state to vote in the nominating process. Statewide advertising tops $1 million per week. “Florida is the biggest prize of the early contests, and it’s hard to imagine anyone mounting a real challenge to Mitt Romney here,” said Sally Bradshaw, who ran Romney’s Florida campaign in 2008 but is neutral now. “His placing ads in Florida proves he’s playing the long game, just as he said he would.”
Despite the continuing resistance Romney faces from conservative voters, if he wins in Florida and New Hampshire, it will be very difficult for anyone to threaten him. And his advantages in Florida suggest that it could be very difficult for anyone to seriously threaten him there without first changing the race’s overall dynamic in South Carolina.
CHINKS IN THE ARMOR
The Palmetto State should offer some opportunities to trip Romney. In the 2008 GOP primary, evangelical Christians cast 60 percent of the votes—and just one in nine voted for Romney. The state also has a strong tea party presence, and its demographics reflect the changing nature of the GOP coalition.
In 2008, the South Carolina Republican electorate split in half between voters with and without a four-year college degree. That tracks the growing blue-collar influence inside the party’s coalition nationwide: In 2008, voters without a college education cast 51 percent of the total votes in the GOP primaries, compared with 49 percent for those with degrees, according to a cumulative analysis conducted by ABC.
In many coastal states such as Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Virginia, college-plus voters still constituted a majority of the 2008 GOP electorate. But noncollege voters cast a majority of the GOP ballots in most Southern and Midwestern states last time, ranging from 54 percent in Missouri, 58 percent in Arkansas and Alabama, to 61 percent in Ohio and Wisconsin, according to the 2008 exit polls.
If Santorum can survive as a viable alternative past Florida—a big if—those voters may offer him his best opportunity to press Romney. Many white-collar Republicans relate easily to Romney’s aura of brisk executive competence; he’s a natural fit for voters who want a president who can manage the economy. But he’s not quite as natural a choice for the blue-collar members of the GOP electorate, who tend to be more populist—both culturally and economically—and more welcoming to someone who will upend Washington, not manage it. (See “Populists Versus Managers,” NJ, Dec. 18, 2010, p. 16.) In 2008, the cumulative exit-poll analysis found, Romney ran slightly better among college-educated Republicans than those without degrees; the pattern repeated in Iowa this week, where he won 27 percent of voters with degrees and 22 percent of those without.
Santorum made an emotional pitch for blue-collar voters in his Tuesday-night speech by evocatively summoning the memory of his grandfather, a coal miner. Sounding more like a labor-oriented Democrat than a typical Republican, Santorum on the stump laments the loss of manufacturing jobs and pledges to revive them by eliminating the corporate-income tax on manufacturers and by slashing regulation.
It’s not clear if Santorum can fully cast himself as a working-class hero. (His economic plan, for instance, would cut the top income tax rate for the rich more than Romney’s.) But the contrast in style, background, and rhetoric between Santorum and Romney raises the possibility that the GOP race will divide along the upscale/downscale and wine-track/beer-track lines that have shaped most Democratic nominating fights since 1968. “Is it drawing to an inside straight for Santorum? No question about it,” said GOP media consultant Alex Castellanos. “But you can’t rule out a candidate for the American worker taking off.”
Romney’s strength in New Hampshire and financial advantage in Florida mean that if Santorum (or another of Romney’s remaining opponents) hopes to take off, South Carolina probably must provide the runway. Although the strong evangelical and tea party elements should provide a foundation for a stop Romney campaign, the state has usually provided a firewall for establishment-favored candidates like him. And as a Northern Catholic, Santorum may struggle to unify its evangelical voters as effectively as born-again Southerners such as Huckabee and George W. Bush did in earlier campaigns—especially with Perry planning to “reset” his campaign there.
As these competing currents converge, South Carolina once again seems poised to play its customary crucial role. Romney can’t lose the election in South Carolina. But now that Iowa has reshaped the battlefield so favorably for him (despite his own limitations), he might effectively win it there.
Ron Fournier contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the January 7, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.