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Three Lessons From the Iowa Caucus Results

Three Lessons From the Iowa Caucus Results

By Sean Trende - January 4, 2012


I see several key takeaways for your watercooler discussions in the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses, the last of which has received far too little attention.

1. It really was a good night for Mitt Romney. Some people are trying to spin this as a bad night for him because he fell just short of his 2008 showing and failed to demolish a weak crop of Republican candidates. But he also invested less time and fewer resources in Iowa this time around; he didn't really become active until a few weeks ago, when it became clear he had a chance to win.

More importantly, he won in a state that is as far out of his demographic wheelhouse as any in the country. The moderate Mormon from Massachusetts was never expected to play particularly well in a state dominated by evangelicals and social conservatives, and the fact that there’s no one running to his left makes him seem all the more liberal, vis-à-vis 2008. He didn’t dominate by any stretch, but he still won.

In addition, the candidates placed almost exactly where Romney hoped they would. There were two real dangers for him, both of which were avoided. First, that he would finish well out of the top two. For that to happen, Santorum’s and Paul’s relatively energized bases would have had to show up en masse, giving the duo each around 25 percent of the vote, while Romney’s relatively unenthusiastic supporters (because he had spent so little time in the state) would have had to stay home. Obviously none of this happened.

Second, above all else, he wanted Rick Perry to do well enough that he didn’t have to drop out, but not so well that he finished a strong fourth and gained real momentum. As of this moment, it looks like Perry is staying in at least through South Carolina, but his weak fifth-place showing will make it quite a bit harder for him to turn the boat around. This is precisely what Romney wanted.

2. Romney is not the inevitable nominee. Regardless of what the pro-Romney camp insists, it wasn’t a great night for their man. He has weaknesses (as described above), even if they are, as my lawyer friends would say, “non-dispositive.”

Though he’ll almost certainly win New Hampshire by a large margin, his semi-favorite-son status there renders it something of a nullity for every candidate not named Jon Huntsman (who has to finish a very strong second if he wants to continue in the race).

The next major stop comes in South Carolina, which has an electorate similar to Iowa’s. The various conservative candidates will make their final stand there. If conservative voters can coalesce around one of them, there is still a chance to change the trajectory of the primary. But this would have been more likely if Perry had dropped out. It would have been even more likely if Perry had exceeded expectations in Iowa, since he is thought to have the deeper resources to carry out a long-term battle.

3. Rick Santorum may well be the future of the Republican Party. While I find it highly unlikely that he’ll be the nominee this time out, there’s a good chance that the Republican coalition will fundamentally change in the next 20 years and move toward Santorum’s style of politics. Twice in a row now, the party has toyed with nominating a candidate who combined social conservatism with economic populism; Santorum’s speech last night was essentially a northern version of a speech Mike Huckabee could have delivered in 2008.

We’ve already seen white working-class voters move toward the Republican Party over the past several decades -- a shift perhaps epitomized by the GOP’s special election victory in New York’s 9th Congressional District. If a more credible Santorum/Huckabee candidate could emerge, the party would reciprocate by moving toward these voters. This would have major implications for our political dynamic, and could deal the Democrats a serious blow in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

On the other hand, the Democrats have been moving toward a top-bottom coalition of “New Economy” professionals and minority voters. A Santorum/Huckabee-esque Republican Party would probably hasten the exit of upscale suburbanites from the Republican coalition, and potentially reinvigorate the New Democrat approach to governing that dominated the party’s politics in the ’90s. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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