Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Iowa caucuses and the future of Mitt Romney

Who will win the Iowa caucuses today? Who knows? Right now, it's a too-close-to-call three-way race. Nate Silver:

A new Public Policy Polling survey in Iowa, conducted Saturday and Sunday, shows a virtual three-way tie in advance of the Iowa caucuses. Ron Paul has a nominal lead with 20 percent of the vote in the poll, followed by Mitt Romney at 19 percent and Rick Santorum at 18 percent.

Our forecast model, which combines the Public Policy Polling survey with other recent polls of the state, also shows an effective three-way tie, although it has Mr. Romney ahead by the slimmest of margins. The model projects Mr. Romney to receive 21.0 percent of the vote, followed by Mr. Paul at 20.6 percent and Mr. Santorum — whose numbers have been on the rise — at 19.3 percent.

It's pretty clear that Romney is the frontrunner and, yes, likely winner of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. With Newt's dramatic collapse, there's just no one left who can rally the anti-Romney vote and secure enough conservative support to pose a serious challenge at this point. That can change, of course. What this race has shown us, if anything, is that things can change quickly. But, as of right now, it looks like it'll be Romney. Paul would pick up major momentum with a win, but he's widely loathed in the Republican Party and won't be able to follow up a strong showing in Iowa with similar performances in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Santorum is surging, but he's been focusing almost exclusively on Iowa and lacks the resources to be able to compete anywhere else (assuming the GOP is willing to go with such a far-right social conservative and theocrat, which it isn't). Newt appears to be done. And Perry and Bachmann are just too far back.

But is the glass half-full or half-empty for Romney?

A win in Iowa today would be huge for him. It wasn't so long ago, after all, that a win seemed like an impossibility -- and that even a strong showing seemed unlikely. But credit his ground campaign, built up over many years, as well as the concerted effort on the part of the moneyed party elites to clear the path for him by going after his rivals one by one: Perry and Gingrich, notably. And credit the embarrassing weakness of the whole field, and of his rivals individually. A strong, credible conservative would be slaughtering Romney. Instead, the whole lot of 'em have either fallen well short, risen and fallen quickly, or surging too late with little hope.

With a win, Romney would immediately cement his status as frontrunner, pick up significant momentum, and allow him to make the case that he is in fact sufficiently conservative to be the party's nominee, that in effect he's been vetted by the party faithful in the close confines of the Iowa caucuses. Even a strong second place behind Paul would be fine, as Paul is widely regarded as a renegade who can't win. (And in any event a Paul win would discredit the caucuses in the eyes of many Republicans, as well as in the eyes of the media, as an outlier that doesn't reflect where the party really is. Even before the first votes are cast, anti-Paul forces in the party have been making this case through the media.) A second-place finish behind Santorum would be a bit more challenging for him, though Romney would be able to right the ship quickly with a landslide win in New Hampshire. The problem is that Santorum would have emerged as the leading conservative alternative and as something of a credible contender.

Regardless of all this, Romney still faces an enormous hurdle going forward. Specifically, he still has the low ceiling of support that has plagued him throughout the entire campaign. I wrote about this in September, and nothing has really changed, just the names of his main rivals. He's still polling nationally in the 25-30 range -- and still faces a stiff challenge from Gingrich in South Carolina and Florida (assuming that Newt stays in and fights). Basically, Republicans by and large don't like him and don't want to vote for him. The elites are in his corner, more or less, but will leading conservatives like Dear Leader Rush put aside their loathing and accept him as their party's nominee? And even if he does win the nomination, largely by default, would conservatives be at all enthusiastic about him even when faced with Obama as the alternative?

Romney may win today, or may otherwise emerge looking fairly strong, but his future is hardly all that bright.

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