Much of the focus coming out of Iowa is on how close the race turned out to be – specifically the fact that only eight votes separated Romney from former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (making this result the closest Iowa caucus in history). Santorum’s rise from single digits to the top tier of the Republican field in Iowa is a “made for mass media” easy narrative: he is the guy running on a shoestring budget, competing against the well-funded and experienced Romney juggernaut. Metaphors like “the little engine that could” or “David vs. Goliath” abound. Another important, though slightly less compelling story line coming out of Iowa is the performance of Texas congressman Ron Paul, who came in a solid third place with 21% of the vote, four points below Romney and Santorum. Finally, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich lashed out unmistakably at Romney following his finish in a distant fourth place, caused in no small part by the millions of dollars in attack ads that the former Massachusetts governor and his well heeled friends directed at him. Romney’s critics seized upon his 25% total as further evidence that the conservative base of the Republican party still does not embrace him as the frontrunner. Yet, despite all of this, the Republican nomination race still looks like Romney’s to lose.
Following Iowa is the New Hampshire primary, which is Romney’s backyard. It is extremely unlikely that any of his would-be challengers will be able to defeat him in the Granite State. Social conservatives, the core of Santorum’s base in Iowa, are nowhere near the political force within the Republican primary in New Hampshire as they are in Iowa or as they will be in South Carolina. Jon Huntsman, the former governor in Utah, is making a valiant effort to dislodge Romney, but there is little chance that he will succeed. It appears that Gingrich has come to see destroying Romney as his personal mission: after disingenuously promising to run a positive campaign, he has completely taken off the gloves with respect to the former governor of Massachusetts. Congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian message potentially could find fertile soil in the “live free or die” political culture that characterizes the state. Still, with Romney holding a commanding lead in the polls, his rivals will have to wound him – and wound him fast – if they hope to somehow upset him in New Hampshire.
Assuming that Romney wins New Hampshire, the last stand for the conservatives who do not think the governor is one of them is South Carolina. South Carolina is one of the most conservative states in the nation. No Republican candidate in recent years has captured the party’s nomination without winning South Carolina. And it is here where Romney’s record of serial flip-flops – ranging from abortion to global warming to individual mandates for health insurance – may cost him dearly. Evangelical Christians make up a sizable chunk of the Republican base: some of these voters (not coincidentally) are also uncomfortable with his Mormonism in addition to the other deficiencies they see in him. It would seem to be a state tailor made for a “true conservative” alternative to Romney to emerge. Romney has conspicuously failed to crack the 25% ceiling in national polls as conservatives have been shopping around for the anti-Romney candidate since the campaign began. In historical terms, Romney is a strikingly weak Republican frontrunner – this is the party which traditionally nominates the candidate whom the establishment feels has earned the “next turn” (One noteworthy exception to this tendency occurred in 1964, when Barry Goldwater captured the nomination over establishment favorite Nelson Rockerfeller.) For those conservatives still not convinced that Governor Romney is one of them, South Carolina represents their last, best chance to derail his march toward the nomination.
However, the big story of the 2012 race for the Republican nomination thus far has been the colossal failure of the conservative wing of the party to unify behind a single candidate. There have been several pretenders for this throne –Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and more recently, Newt Gingrich – who have all for different reasons been found wanting. Rick Santorum represents the latest candidate seeking to unify the conservatives: he happened to surge in the waning days before the Iowa caucus before any significant media scrutiny or attack advertising could drive his numbers down. It remains to be seen whether Santorum’s surge has real staying power or if he is simply the beneficiary of good timing.
There are serious reasons to doubt his capacity to capitalize on his Iowa success to emerge as THE challenger to Romney. Santorum has nowhere near the money or the organization to compete with Romney for the long haul. Romney’s fundraising and organizational advantages will become ever more important as the campaign shifts to New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and beyond. While he can expect a cash infusion based on his Iowa success, he will have a daunting task setting up a national campaign in a few weeks. More importantly, the Iowa results did not sufficiently clear the field to enable Santorum to get a clear shot at Romney. Only Michelle Bachman dropped out after Iowa; however, she did so poorly in the caucus that her absence from the race matters very little in the grand scheme of things. After signaling his intention to “reassess” his campaign following his disappointing showing in Iowa, Texas Gov. Rick Perry made clear his intention Wednesday to compete in South Carolina. Perry still reportedly has over $3.5 million in the bank, which is more than enough to mount a credible (if last ditch) stand in South Carolina. Santorum, thus, will be denied the luxury of focusing just on Romney. Rather, he can expect to be attacked by Rick Perry who will be vying for the same universe of voters Santorum is targeting. Moreover, Newt Gingrich, though battered and bruised by Romney’s attacks, still leads him in polls in the Palmetto State. Consequently, he has little incentive to get out of the race any time soon. In fact, his determination to bring Romney down actually serves to help the Massachusetts governor in the long run because it keeps the conservative vote fractured among several candidates. And we should not overlook the impact that Ron Paul could have on the race. Though not many people give Paul a serious shot at being the nominee, he has enough money and organization to stay in the race for a long time. All of these factors make it very likely that Mitt Romney will ultimately be the nominee of the Republican party.
Therefore, despite his clear vulnerabilities as a frontrunner, Mitt Romney has thus far been the luckiest politician in America. Because of the failure of the conservative wing of the party to coalesce around one candidate, he may win by a “divide and conquer” strategy. Rick Santorum may find himself in the same position as former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee found himself in 2008. Huckabee needed a win in South Carolina to keep his shoestring operation alive against John McCain and Mitt Romney. However, former Senator Fred Thompson (who ran an otherwise forgettable campaign) took enough votes from Huckabee to deny him the victory he so badly needed. McCain won the state and went on to win the nomination. A similar result appears likely in 2012: Romney could benefit from division within the conservative ranks and win by default. If the conservative wing is unable to stop Romney in South Carolina, it is hard to see how anyone beats him in Florida (a very expensive state to run in), not to mention compete with him on Super Tuesday. Once again, the Jan. 21 contest in South Carolina may very well decide the Republican nomination.
Of all the lucky breaks that have come Romney’s way, none is more significant than the fact that Gov. Rick Perry turned out to be such a shockingly poor candidate. No one seemed better positioned to challenge Romney than Perry. Not only is he a Southern governor, but he is an evangelical who speaks the language of the base: he is a”true believer” much more so than George W. Bush ever was. His Texas connections meant that he had the capacity to raise bucket loads of money to rival the Romney machine. But his spectacularly inept performances at the GOP debates eventually became too much for Republicans to ignore. The debates sealed the image of Perry as a man woefully underprepared for the complexities of the office of president. In fact, it was only the collapse of Perry which created the vacuum for candidates like Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and now Rick Santorum to emerge as credible challengers to Romney. As important as money has become in our politics, Rick Perry’s rapid rise and fall stands out as a stark reminder that there are limits to what even money can buy in American politics His fall removed the single most problematic obstacle to Romney’s path to the nomination.
All of this could change, of course, if somehow Romney underperforms in New Hampshire. A big win there is essential to fortify his case that he is the one Republican best positioned to appeal to independents in a general election contest with Barack Obama. To be sure, Santorum does have momentum from Iowa, and he has an economic message that might possibly resonate in New Hampshire. Furthermore, Gingrich and Paul are not going away; they will take as many shots at Romney as they possibly can. Finally, it must be remembered that New Hampshire voters have a tendency to reject establishment figures: in 1996, Pat Buchanan defeated establishment candidate Bob Dole, who later went on to win the nomination. John McCain shocked George W. Bush in New Hampshire in 2000; in 2008, he defeated Romney in his own backyard. To their credit, the Romney people seem fully aware of that history and do not seem to be taking anything for granted. But despite the earnest desire of Romney’s critics within the party and despite the desire of the media for a protracted campaign (which would be good for ratings), the nomination still looks like Romney remains the prohibitive favorite to capture the Republican nomination for president in 2012.
Dr. Albert Samuels, Asst. Prof. of Political Science, SUBR