Well, that’s basically the size of it. There are headlines this morning talking about Romney’s ‘win’, and it is true that he came in first, but it was by eight votes out of a new record of 122,225. This is a lot of buzz from an electorate that approximates the size of Sugar Land, Texas.
And despite that buzz, the most remarkable fact about the numbers is that there is an unremarkable difference between Romney’s result now and in 2008. In both cases, he polled 25% of the vote, but the spin is entirely different: in 2008, he suffered a ‘devastating loss’ to Mike Huckabee (who had secured some 34%), but Huckabee had effectively wrapped up the conservative vote in the state (Fred Thompson was moderate, McCain is a ‘maverick’, then Ron Paul was not quite as loony as now). In 2012, the conservative vote is split amongst four candidates (Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann), with Paul (like Romney) still retaining his base organisation in the state from four years ago, gaining ground. But despite Romney’s head start of several years, he still can’t pull out of the 25% ceiling that he consistently maintains. In other words, Romney has shown no improvement after all this time. He hasn’t gotten better; his opposition is larger and more diffuse.
But the real value of Iowa is to winnow the field, and we have just seen that a few moments ago with the capitulation of Michele Bachmann (she is “suspending” her campaign, but that meaning is the same as for Herman Cain – she’s out).
Even Rick Perry has announced that he is returning to Texas to re-assess his campaign, but I expect that he is doing exactly that – re-assessing. He surely takes note that McCain (who, unsurprisingly, is now endorsing Romney) polled about the same percentage as Perry in 2008, and Perry still maintains a decent size campaign fund for the shot at South Carolina and Florida. [And now we hear that he is doing precisely that -- "Here we come, South Carolina!"]
Santorum, the darling of the moment, has to put together some sort of miracle to maintain his momentum -- and such good timing too -- without an organisation to speak of; you will notice what a lack of effective organisation did for Gingrich, who plummeted in the polls as a result of Romney’s (and to a great extent, Paul’s) attack ads. (Sure, the ads were from Super PACs, so technically Romney can say that he didn’t go negative since there is no legal connection between his campaign and the PACs, but we know how the game is played.) Santorum made a noble run at Iowa, tirelessly visiting every county in the state (as did Bachmann, eventually), but while that might be a good strategy for Iowa, there is no way he can keep that up in the succeeding states.
Ron Paul has increased his percentage from four years ago, from 10% to 25%, but the voters' target list has changed. Besides the different Republican field explained above, this time the Democrats who are bored with the idea of the pro forma Democrat caucus to anoint Obama were easily able to switch to the Republican caucus by registering on the spot. Mischief such as this is not uncommon nor unheard of. Additionally, the Paul campaign was counting on an upsurge of young voters to bolster his movement, but my read of the preliminary demographics show that this hasn't happened. This could well be an indicator that Paul is peaking. Questions about a possible third-party candidacy are always well-parsed, a habit developed from practically any of his other comments. A back-room coordination of the other candidates to focus on the lunacy of his dangerous refusal to have a foreign policy would be a great idea, trying to eliminate the threat he poses by ushering in a second Obama term through his threat of a split ticket on the Right. Even his son dismisses a third-party run with "I don't think it's a good idea."