The Conservative Race In Iowa

There are 2,286 delegates awarded in the GOP primaries and caucuses; the nomination thus requires wrapping up 1,143 delegates. Between them, Iowa and New Hampshire award 10 delegates; South Carolina and Florida, the other two states voting later this month, award 75. By contrast, three states (California, Texas and New York) award a combined 422 delegates, more than a third of the total needed to win. So, the race is far from over after New Hampshire, and as long as there is credible opposition, it can go on for quite a while after South Carolina and Florida as well.
That said, the early states are traditionally a test of strength that helps winnow the field to the more serious contenders, especially those with the fundraising ability and appeal beyond a narrow niche to make a serious effort to win the nomination. But three of the seven candidates now in the race are pretty much guaranteed to go beyond Iowa. First, Mitt Romney: Romney would like to win Iowa, and could be embarrassed if he finishes third (lower is very unlikely), but no matter what happens, Romney’s money, his appeal to the moderate wing of the party, and his establishment support will carry him to New Hampshire, where he is heavily favored to win easily. Second, Ron Paul: Paul could do well in Iowa as a protest vote if there are a lot of independents and Democrats re-registering tomorrow on caucus day, but his hard core of support and idosyncratic appeal guarantee that he will be in the race as long as there’s a race, regardless of how he does in any contest, yet with no chance of ever winning. And third, Jon Huntsman: Huntsman has placed all his chips on New Hampshire and already plans on finishing a distant seventh in Iowa. The only effect Iowa has on Huntsman is indirect: if Romney looks weak coming out of Iowa, Huntsman can ratchet up his efforts to convince New Hampshire moderates that Romney is fatally flawed.
Where Iowa could matter a lot, however, is in sorting out the four candidates running as the field’s conservatives: Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the arguments over who can claim the term “conservative”; clearly this is the role in the field all four are pursuing). They represent a caucus-within-a-caucus, and even though they are likely to be separated 1-4 by a relatively small number of votes, their order of finish could have an outsized impact on the race, eliminating anywhere from 1-3 of them from the field.

The reason for this is the basic dynamic of this race: after six years of running for President, the polling and anecdotal evidence is quite clear that Mitt Romney is the preferred choice of only about a quarter of the GOP electorate, and at least two-thirds would clearly prefer a more reliably conservative candidate. Paul, for a variety of reasons, can’t present that alternative, and Huntsman won’t. But just as clearly, Romney can win the nomination by a strategy of divide and conquer: keep the conservative wing of the party from putting its votes and money behind a single alternative. His campaign has pursued this strategy craftily, focusing fire on whoever looked likely to dominate the conservative vote at any given time, and more recently by his allies talking up Santorum, an alternative Romney clearly feels he can defeat. It’s a strategy that has relieved Romney of the need to make any sort of positive argument on anything other than the faults of various conservative Republicans. But it will be his undoing if, as the race proceeds, he fails to prevent the majority faction within the party from uniting around a standard-bearer.
Of the four conservatives, Bachmann is now the most vulnerable to a poor showing in Iowa, assuming that she’s running out of self-interest and not – as some have suggested – as a stalking horse for Romney. Bachmann was born in Iowa, hails from a neighboring state, won the Iowa Straw Poll, has spent a bunch of time in the state, and led the RCP polling average in the state most of the summer with support as high as 27% (higher than Romney has ever polled in Iowa; he’s never cracked 23% after winning 25.2% in 2008), and her social-conservative, evangelical background and message should resonate well in Iowa. Yet, she’s collapsed to single digits and sixth place in most polls, has suffered key organizational losses, she doesn’t have a ton of money in the bank, and – not to be overlooked – unlike the other candidates besides Paul, she actually has to run for re-election in a not-entirely-safe district this fall. If Bachmann finishes fourth of the four, it is hard to see how she justifies staying in the race.
At the opposite end of the scale are the two guys Romney fears: Gingrich and Perry. Newt surged to national and Iowa poll leadership in December on the basis of his massive name recognition and excellent debate performances, and his role as a former Speaker of the House and leader of the 1994 conservative revolution still give him a lot of credibility and goodwill on the Right. Newt could, despite his many vulnerabilities, sustain a campaign with sufficient funding and earned media exposure to beat Romney if he could unite the Right; while polling is somewhat stale at present, he was last seen with significant leads on Romney in South Carolina and Florida, both states in which the other candidates haven’t polled in single digits. Ideally, Newt wanted to beat Romney in Iowa, so he could build the argument that he was the man to stop Mitt. But Newt’s support, much of it cannibalized from the early December collapse of the Herman Cain campaign, is not deeply rooted, and the not-Romney aspect of that support could desert him quickly if he’s shown to be unable to either outpoll Romney or unite the Right. Newt’s poll support in Iowa has dropped in the RCP average from 31 to 13 in a little over two weeks of ceaseless negative TV ads from Romney allies, he’s currently polling fourth, and it’s questionable if Newt has the organization on the ground to capitalize even on that much support. If he finishes far behind Romney and behind Santorum – worse yet, behind Perry as well – Newt’s supporters in the southern states may start taking a harder look at alternatives. It’s hard to see Newt leaving the race without being forced out, but then he’s clearly bitter at Romney right now over the negative barrage; were I Perry (whose last book Newt wrote a forward for), I’d work overtime in the aftermath of a poor Iowa showing by Newt to try to convince Newt to step aside and focus the field.
Then there’s Perry. Let me go out on a limb: if Perry finishes third in Iowa, he’ll be the nominee. He’s the guy best suited by money, organization and resume to capitalize on a strong Iowa showing, which is why Romney’s media allies have been talking up Santorum’s momentum instead. I don’t expect Perry to finish third; he’s polling fifth, and is probably most likely to finish fourth behind Romney, Paul and Santorum. Perry can afford that, if it’s a respectable fourth: if Newt and Bachmann end up out of the race, Perry can make a solid argument that he’s still the only credible alternative to Romney, and his style is clearly more suited to running in southern states like South Carolina and Florida. Perry’s debate stumbles buried him for a while, but more than one candidate in this race has gotten a second look as the wheel continues to turn; but he needs to show that his hard work in Iowa of late has yielded some sort of progress. A fifth place showing behind both Newt and Santorum will put him on the ropes – not out just yet, perhaps, but with a much more complicated road to climbing over both to win South Carolina.
Which brings us to Santorum, the spoiler, only finally drawing attention (and scrutiny). Santorum has almost no campaign outside of Iowa, where he’s spent vastly more time than anyone else in the race, doing endless, weary retail events touting his social conservatism. It’s much harder to envision Santorum scaling up to a national race against Romney than it is with Newt, and just as Newt bears the scars of the GOP’s failures in the 1996-2000 period, Santorum bears those of 2006, a more recent loss when he – as a member of the Senate GOP leadership – lost the Senate majority, lost his seat by 18 points to a colorless opponent, lost the support of party conservatives over his endorsement of Arlen Specter, lost the party’s credibility on spending, and became a lightning rod for gay activists over his various foot-in-mouth moments on social issues. Santorum is an ex-Senator with no executive experience, and Senators are famously terrible presidential candidates, as we saw in basically every primary and/or general election since 1964 (think of McCain, Kerry, Goldwater, McGovern, Dole, Hillary, Kennedy, Bradley, Biden, Tsongas, Muskie, Edwards, Gramm, Dodd, Byrd, Gore, Brownback, Baker, Bayh, Glenn, Harkin, Hatch, Hollings, Hart, Kerrey, Lugar, Specter, Bentsen, Church, Cranston, Bob Smith, and Scoop Jackson) – the only way a Senator can win a presidential election is against another Senator, as Obama did by beating Hillary and McCain. While there may not be time to ventilate all of Santorum’s problems, the greatest of which is his legacy as a loser in 2006, there is little doubt that Romney could and would destroy him once he’s no longer useful in denying oxygen to more capable adversaries. But a top-3 showing in Iowa makes it impossible for Santorum to go away before South Carolina.
The clearest outcome in the conservative primary in Iowa would be for Perry or Newt to win it. The second clearest would be Santorum first and Perry second, which largely deflates Newt and takes out Bachmann. The worst plausible case is Santorum-Newt-Perry-Bachmann, which probably eliminates Bachmann but leaves Newt and Perry both wounded and regrouping for a messy South Carolina showdown.
We’ll finally know more tomorrow.

19 thoughts on “The Conservative Race In Iowa”

  1. Let’s be honest Crank, there is no Conservative race in Iowa. There are no Conservatives running in Iowa. I am still hoping for a Conservative to step up and enter the race. If they don’t it is very possible our country will have to endure another 4 years of BO.

  2. IN 2012, the new number is 2490 total delegates….to win GOP requires 1245 delegates…..The other major factor in 2012 is that all primaries held before April 1, the delegates in each state are split, except Florida. FYI

  3. Source? I’m working off the Green Papers delegate numbers, which list the total as 2429, reduced to 2286 by the penalty served on Florida and other line-jumpers (Michigan, Arizona) for holding unauthorized early primaries.

  4. Worst thing the Dems did to the POTUS campaign process besides giving the nation Obama in ’08 was to make running for POTUS a 2 year campaign. The nation can be in a far different state by inauguration compared to 2 years prior, which is exactly the problem the nation found itself in. The media did not help the Dems as they shifted their favoritism in 08 and ‘settled’ the debate despite Hillary’s strong showing and steadiness throughout the primary season. They neutered the superdelegate idea when it was created exactly for such a situation.
    If Mitt Romney could go back in time, he would go back to the 90s & declare his residency in Michigan and run for Gov there.

  5. Dan, I’m curious, you say if Perry comes in third in Iowa that he will be the nominee. I really really hope you are right because I love Perry but what makes you say so? what is the rationale?

  6. Assuming he’s behind Romney and Paul, third would give Perry the first position among the conservatives in the field. Even if it’s behind Romney and Santorum, that’s a good place to be.
    I expect him to finish fourth or a very tight fifth, but third is possible if the polls are scrambled by turnout, organization and late-deciding-voter factors (polling shows huge numbers not committed going into tonight).
    maddirish, I don’t slice the definition of “conservative” that tightly. The four I’ve named may not all be good small-government people, but all four represent aspects of the conservative movement.

  7. I have to admit, when I’ m not left speechless by the “galactic[] stupid[ity]”* shown in the debates and the delusional lies on the stump, the GOP primary/caucus season has been wildly entertaining.
    I am really looking forward to the moment when Romney has cleared the field and the wing nuts go on bended knee to Princess Sarah to “save” the country.
    *Sorry. I watched A Few Good Men yesterday.

  8. Yes, any result that somehow keeps this pack of fools together so they can stuff themselves into the little clown car they ride around in together and careen off, Bugs Bunny style, to New Hampshire is my hope for today. I hope that Paul can stick around long enough and that Santorum (or Bachman, it doesn’t really matter but one of them won’t be around much longer) can garner enough of the super-duper right wing vote that he sticks around and that Newt sticks around simply because he hates Romney so much that y’all end up with a brokered convention with no candidate having enough delegates to win. Romney is forced to give in and you end up with a candidate (presumably Palin) that didn’t run. Awesome.

  9. Laugh now, you two, but know that whatever fool we select will beat the well-creased pants off of Toonces. That’s how poorly he has done his job.
    We could put up the original Toonces and have a fighting chance against the Chicago Failure.

  10. Ah yes, I do recall with great fondness the incredible accuracy of y’all on this site during the last POTUS election. Intensely accurate other than the whole McCain losing in a landslide thing. I could perhaps see Perry putting up a stiff test even though he has, to date, proved to be a dreadful campaigner outside of Texas. The others? Not seeing it. Rick Santorum is not beating Obama nor Bachman nor Paul and ibased on what y’all say here I can’t see Romney winning either.

  11. Crank,
    It seems Brother Perry has as good a chance at third place as the Metropolitans. But, sleep tight because Santorum will outlaw sex between men and dogs. Ladies and gentlemen, meet our right wing!
    Spongeworthy, ask Osama if the President is toonces. I can’t wait to hear your excuses in November.

  12. Santorum will outlaw sex between men and dogs. Ladies and gentlemen, meet our right wing!
    This is what it’s come to, you guys worried about your Constitutional right to molest your Yorkies. Hey, you gotta fight for your right to party!

  13. Well Crank, your “worst plausible case” occurred. Can we expect glowing reviews of Mitt’s “executive experience” in the coming weeks?

  14. So the God-bothererer of K Street, who proudly defended his earmarks, came within 8 caucus votes of winning Iowa.
    Why it’s almost like the Tea Party isn’t really small-government AT ALL.
    Do you mind if I use this space to accept apologies from the Cranksters who scoffed at me when I called the Tea Party the Republican Party with a name change only?
    It’s a fine tradition.
    Liberals: Taking shit for being correct since the 1960s.

  15. For the sake of this election, Crank should vote for any candidate who would support a government bailout of the New York Mets.

  16. I think Santorum’s finish shows just how desperate we small government Conservatives really are. He is by far not an ideal candidate, but fits the bill better than all the rest combined.

  17. Um…Crank? I don’t want to mess with your Republican math, but if there are 2,286 delegates awarded in the GOP primaries and caucuses, then two contenders could each have 1,143 and neither has the nomination. It would take 1,144 to wrap up the nomination. Just sayin’…

  18. Hey Berto – If liberals have been right about things since the 1960s, how come the billions spent on a myriad of lib designed & created school programs have never closed the racial education gap? It’s always more money, or more after school programs, or to borrow a phrase from the Vietnam era, “one more turn of the screw”. That’s got to really burn liberal britches, or do you all just stick your head in the sand about that? Wait, then you’d have to stick your head in the sand concerning program after program, starting with LBJ’s great society programs, that helped destroy the black family unit as just about every socioeconomic indicator for blacks has not closed in relation to whites and/or Asians. I would also include the illegitimacy race skyrocketing to 72% & marriage rates at all time lows to be a weird, product of those wonderful LBJ programs. I now get why many Dems look down on religion or take the ‘buffet’ approach. They can’t stick to an ethos and accept all of it. Own up to your destructive liberal policy ideas.

  19. I’m usually impressed by your analyses but this collection strikes me as wrong in almost all details. And so the outcome proves, of course. You have plenty of company, certainly, even among those who are paid for offering political opinions.
    Let me donate a clue to anyone who might be interested. The primary quality voters look for in a President is that of appearing presidential. Obama was (and still is, to a lesser degree) quite good at this. No man with his limited experience and accomplishments could have been elected otherwise.
    What the all-too-typical voter uses to assess presidentiality is gravitas (that is, the appearance but not necessarily the reality of gravity) self-confidence, physical appearance, and the ability to speak well. Any agreements on policies are likely to be mere hooks on which to hang the justification for choosing a particular candidate.
    Perry died because he failed on gravitas and speech. Gingrich failed on appearance, gravitas and self-confidence, because boastfulness and grandiosity are sensed as indications of self-doubt. Romney does moderately well because of his skill at hiding any lack of self confidence. But his flip-flopping and alterations in basic beliefs are sensed, perhaps subliminally, as that very thing. His gravitas and good looks are insufficient to overcome this weakness among two-thirds of the Republican loyalists.
    You surely realize I’m referring to typical voters, not insightful individuals such as you and myself, and those other stalwart souls who follow this blog. ;~}
    One other factor is quite important, and that is electability — the appearance of having a chance to win. Santorum surged because he had a few improved debates, and as the other conservatives began to fade pundits here and there would scratch their chins and ask one another, “Is it possible Santorum could do anything?” A significant portion of potential Iowa caucusers had already evaluated Santorum as a candidate with potential. Following these hints that he might be electable the wave built rapidly, gathering in voters disappointed with their first choices.
    Santorum has improved in presentation during the primary process thus far, as has Romney. If Santorum has improved more than Romney, as I feel he has, he can overcome a lot of organizational drawbacks.

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