The Iowa precinct caucuses are both meaningless and meaningful.
The first because no actual delegates to the Republican National Convention are selected. The vote total political junkies were jonesing over late into the wee hours are part of a straw poll. The actual selection of delegates to the county conventions, which then elect delegates to district and state conventions get lost in the straw poll hysteria.
The apportioned delegates shown on television screens are estimates that rarely play out at the national convention as the rest of the country dictates the political orientation of the Hawkeye State’s RNC delegates at a later date.
That said the caucuses do have a profound impact on the candidate field by often culling those who don’t perform well in the caucuses.
And that’s why it’s no longer uncommon for presidential candidates to pass on the predictable contest.
The Winners and the Losers
1) Rick Santorum- I don’t think anyone can accuse me of playing favorites on this call. Santorum has the distinction of being one of the few social conservative politicians who have complained about Fox News’ lack of fair and balanced coverage. After his Iowa surge, candidate Santorum finally earned a spot on the O’Reilly Factor (or the O’Romney Factor). The ex-Pennsylvania US Senator has finally emerged from the wilderness and has immediately become a major contender for the party nomination and at a minimum now a part of the national conversation. Santorum’s days of being stuck at the far end of debate panels are over though he must transition his campaign from retail to television quick.
2) Mitt Romney- The former Massachusetts governor won the caucuses by the barest of margins (8!) though due to the informal nature of balloting (and ballot security), it’s possible Santorum may have received the most votes or that Romney had won by a few dozen more (at the Drake University location where I observed the process, the precinct chairman attempted to go straight into voting before the Santorum representative was allowed to speak, drawing harrumphs from the attendees and the media section). Romney succeeded where he failed four years ago, limiting both his investment in Iowa and his expectations. Romney also fared well considering he was working New Hampshire while the rest of the field, sans Jon Huntsman, scrambled across Iowa. Romney’s gamble paid off. The downside is that word is being spread that Romney is a 25%’er…that being his support within the party is limited, a case with merit though the number is too low. Romney should be far and away ahead of the pack. He has the most money, name recognition, best organization and establishment support. To draw a paltry number against someone whose campaign was limited to standing on chairs and shouting his speeches in Pizza Ranches across Iowa is significant. Romney will smash his quarter-share in New Hampshire on Tuesday before being ushered back under that number in South Carolina. The nomination is still his to lose and Iowa 2012 was far kinder to his presidential ambitions than Iowa 2008.
3. Newt Gingrich- Instead of “Eye of the Tiger”, the Gingrich camp should have played Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. The former House speaker was pummeled by Super PAC’s connected to Romney and Texas US Representative Ron Paul and saw his lead and confident boast of the inevitability of his nomination wither under the barrage. That said, Gingrich avoided a 5th place finish, which would have ended his candidacy. Without the friendly and free confines of a debate dais, Gingrich lost both his capacity to respond to the charges en masse and to swing back at the sources of the character bombardment. The media isn’t helping Gingrich’s cause by hosting the two New Hampshire debates over the weekend. South Carolina will mean more to Gingrich than New Hampshire.
4. Jon Huntsman- The wealthy former Utah governor and ex-ambassador to China saved his money and spent his time in New Hampshire. His crack about Iowans picking corn and not presidents won’t hurt him unless he’s nominated. Like I said, it won’t hurt him.
5. The Iowa GOP- Once again, the Iowa Republican Party and campaign operatives cleaned up fleecing candidates for their local expertise and vote brokering. Paul’s failure to win the caucuses also preserved the credibility of the caucus (whether you like it or not, anything Paul wins tends to go down in value, see the CPAC straw poll). Finally, Iowa avoided the trap of being labeled a state in the pocket of a parochial favorite by voting last the only native of the state in the race.
1. The Ames Iowa Straw Poll- The first political contest on the presidential political calendar’s days of being the money fest are likely over. Not that there won’t be another one…there will. However it’s significance will take a major hit with the winner of the 2011 poll coming in last amongst the six candidates who competed in the caucuses while the winner of the caucuses chose to skip the event altogether. The extortion rates for land leasing will plummet (justifiably). Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty might very well go down as its final fatality.
2. Rick Perry- Perry spent millions, had a great message, was a good stump speaker for the most part and ran a professional campaign yet came in fifth place. The Texas governor would have been better off skipping both Iowa and New Hampshire, opening his campaign up in South Carolina. Granted had Perry not tanked in the debates, it might have been Santorum going home to reassess his campaign. Had he polled ahead of Gingrich, Perry would have been in a stronger position. I’ll concede Perry does have a chance at a comeback, but his odds are longer than those even Santorum faced four months ago.
3. Ron Paul- Anyone else notice the look on Rand Paul’s face during his father’s caucus night speech? It was as if the Kentucky US Senator was watching his political life flash before his eyes. To Paul’s credit, he broadened his appeal beyond the college campuses and attracted high schoolers to his campaign (Paul-Rats- a cross between Paulistas and mall rats). However judging by the personnel and financial investment in Iowa, Paul needed to finish no worse than second. By finishing third in the midst of a perfect storm, Iowa will mark both his high watermark and the beginning of the end of his campaign. Nevada and a handful of small states might nudge him to second place but Paul didn’t achieve the breakthrough he was counting on.
4. Michele Bachmann- As I said before, some poli comm. grad student looking for a thesis subject should look no further than the Bachmann campaign. Running as a native Iowan, being a high-profile legislative leader of an influential segment of the conservative electorate and as a congresswoman from a neighboring state, Bachmann should have walked away as an easy winner. But after Perry shanghaied her brief moment in the sun during the Ames straw poll, Bachmann never regained her balance and was relegated to quoting scripture at campaign stops to more directly appeal to evangelical voters, who stampeded to the banner of a Roman Catholic (!). Somewhere in Wasilla Sarah Palin is breathing a sigh of relief, seeing her rival as the GOP’s most prominent female face defeated and having avoided what could have been a professional trainwreck.