Iowa Has Spoken

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(From the Clinton School of Public Service Blog)

This morning all the cable news outlets are minutely dissecting the results of last night’s Iowa Republican caucuses.  This is cable news heaven:  plenty of numbers, a surfeit of spin doctors, no logical limits on interpretation or prognostication, no right or wrong answers.  As of this moment, the only tangible result of the whole enterprise is that we won’t have Michele Bachmann to kick around anymore.  Not surprising, but disconcerting nonetheless, was her attribution of her rejection by the caucus-goers, and 6th-place finish in an effective field of six, to “God’s Plan” for her.  Sounding more like a religious counselor at an AA meeting than a conceding presidential candidate, she assured her audience that “God has a Plan for each of us.”  She did not mention the fact that evangelicals, and most particularly Iowa evangelicals, understand that God’s Plan for His Daughters is markedly different from that for His Sons.

Rick Perry, the 5th-place finisher, remembered that fact after leaving Iowa for his Texas home to “reassess” his campaign.  He now says he’s going on to South Carolina, though not New Hampshire, to continue the fight.  Unfortunately for him, there are more debates before the South Carolina primary, although his financial backers may realize that South Carolinians want a good ol’ boy, not some clever, effete Eastern wordsmith.  At any rate, he now has nowhere to go but up.

Newt Gingrich’s Iowa experience, a distant 4th-place finish, seems to have rubbed off a big patch of his recent “nice” veneer and allowed his core peevishness to ooze out.  He blames his unfair and absurd result on the negative ad shitstorm generated by Mitt Romney’s lying and deceitful super PACs.  No cable commentator has failed to appreciate the poetic justice of this, reminding Gingrich that he had praised the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that made Romney’s pricey and anonymous attack possible, but none has yet, to my knowledge, used the phrase “hoist with his own petard.”  Why not?  The image is spot on and should appeal to Professor Gingrich.  Don’t they read Hamlet anymore?

And then the podium finishers:  Romney, Santorum and Paul.  Fittingly, these three represent the three predominant flavors of current Republicanism:  classical, big-business capitalism; fundamentalist religious absolutism; and libertarianism.  To be sure, these three include certain common aspects.  They are all, generally and at least vaguely, anti-government, in word if not in deed; they all subscribe to an essential American exceptionalism; and they all fear and hate “socialism.”  The proportions of these commonalities vary in each flavor, but these three flavor representatives would not cavil about such nuances.  It is these commonalities that make them all Republicans.

To a large extent, though, these flavors are also incompatible.  Both Romney and Paul can accept, as generalities, the divisive absurdities of Santorum’s supernaturalistic worldview, but Romney would not let such a worldview drive his policies and Paul would firmly reject the use of government to implement it.  Both Romney and Santorum admire overseas military adventures, although for quite different reasons – Romney because they’re good for business (See Mike’s post on the long, sordid history of “disaster capitalism.”) and Santorum because his god feels threatened by other gods, like Allah, and atheism.  To Paul, however, such adventures are anathema.  He is strongly opposed to our bloated military and does not see America’s role as World Cop.  But the most profound incompatibility may be in the extent to which these three act according to their “principles” (i.e., “things I strongly believe in and I’m not sure why”).  Romney acts as though he understands that politics is the art of the possible and that, in a diverse and complex democracy, compromise is a ground-level reality, not a life-style choice.  Santorum and Paul tend to sneer at compromise and to elevate principle over pragmatism; they would each rather lose the good fight than salvage a tie in a tainted one.

The relative popularity of these flavors and how these incompatibilities will play out are the critical issues raised by the Iowa caucuses.  It seems likely that the bulk of Bachmann supporters will go to Santorum; anti-abortionism is a powerfully emotional motivator.  When Perry, inevitably, bows out, his big-business supporters will likely go to Romney and his born-again supporters to Santorum.  (If Perry’s money lets him outlast Santorum’s Iowa bump, he will probably get most of the Santorum faithful.)  Gingrich has belatedly tried to cultivate a man-of-god persona, but that attempt did not beguile the Iowa caucus-goers and it doesn’t seem to have worked generally.  Like Romney trying to play a beer-drinking, upland game hunter, Gingrich can’t quite manage humble subservience.  He is simply too indelibly the slick-talking, Beltway wheeler-dealer, a quintessential insider.  Thus, it seems likely that most Gingrich supporters would go to Romney.  Paul, one notices, is unlikely to benefit substantially from the withdrawal of any opponent; in this Republican field, he is sui generis and has no apparent competition for the libertarian vote.

The Iowa math, then, suggests that the Paul flavor attracts about 21% of Republican voters, the Santorum flavor about 33% and the Romney flavor about 45%.  The other 1% are, as we say of certain climbs in the Tour de France, out of category.  Thus, it seems likely that the conventional wisdom is correct and that Romney will eventually prevail, but to what extent can Santorum and Paul Republicans vote for an unattractive flavor?  This depends on how much they are repelled by Obama.  Paul sees Romney as little different from Obama, so maybe a substantial number of Paulistas stay home on Election Day.  Santorumites will have a more nuanced, and fantastic, calculus before them:  Which is more horrible, a closet Muslim pretending to be a Christian or an almost-New-Age cultist claiming deceitfully that he is, in fact, a Christian?  They will shudder at this devilish choice and some of these Santorumites will respond to it with avoidance.  Some of them will not be able to hold their noses and vote for Romney.  Iowa does not suggest how substantial this group might be.

So Iowa has spoken and it has said, albeit in somewhat garbled language, that, unless the economy really tanks again, Obama will gain a narrow popular-vote victory over Romney in November.  It offers no insight into how the Electoral College and the Supreme Court may translate such a popular vote.

ARC – 1/4/2012

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