We Interrupt These Messages…

I am interrupting my reflections on my reading over the past five years to take a look at last night’s Iowa Caucuses.

I love presidential politics, so I might be blogging along these lines off and on all year. You certainly aren’t required to agree with me (or even read my thoughts!) but I hope my ramblings will prove thought-provoking and perhaps prompt you to look into the candidates and the issues more deeply yourself…because I can respect a voter who disagrees with me, but have trouble with a voter who is uninformed.

First of all, let me say that I am a fan of the Iowa Caucuses. I have been on both sides of the debate as to whether or not Iowa should get to be the powerful voice that it is in presidential elections, because I think there are legitimate arguments to be made for the “first in the nation” vote to rotate each time so that different states and different voters get to have the influence of that first vote. That aside, whether it is in Iowa or elsewhere, there is something powerful about the personal level of politics required to be successful in Iowa, and I happen to think that the caucus system is more effective for the initial vote than a primary would be, so I have no qualm with that. At the same time, I have to say that voter turnout for the Iowa caucuses tends to be relatively low, and–surprisingly, in my opinion–it was no higher this year than it was 4 years ago, despite the strong opinion among many that real change is needed in America.

Having attended undergraduate school in Des Moines, Iowa, I have some personal experience with the Iowa caucuses, too. To my absolute astonishment, there were precincts in and around Des Moines in 1996 who had no one to be in charge of the caucus meetings. As a result, a number of political science students from Drake University–including me–had the opportunity to get quite involved. I was not a resident of Iowa, so I could not vote, but I was in the position of checking voters registration, leading the caucus meeting, counting the votes and calling in the results. Pretty cool stuff! Even more surprising than the fact that there were some precincts with no one charge, there was one precinct meeting where no one showed up to vote. The precincts in that particular section of Des Moines were small enough, and ideal potential meeting locations rare enough, that two precincts were meeting in the same building. That turned out to be quite fortunate for me and the other student from Drake assigned to the building, since we were both able to be involved despite one having no one in attendance. But the bottom line is, whoever shows up gets one vote…and last night’s results clearly showed that one vote does make a difference, since Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum finished the night separated by only eight votes.

This was a surprise to many people, because Rick Santorum has consistently polled in the single digits, and he has been banished to the far end in every debate thus far. However, Santorum has campaigned consistently and persistently in Iowa, visiting every county in the state (and most of the Pizza Ranches, apparently) holding more than 300 meetings with voters. He does very well with local politics, and he has a clear and consistent message that many voters find appealing.

Still, there are plenty of people already saying Rick Santorum’s showing in yesterday’s Iowa caucuses will have little or no meaning on the rest of the campaign, presenting nothing more than slight bump in the road to Mitt Romney’s inevitable nomination. I have to disagree, and a deeper examination of the results of the Iowa vote reveals why: Quite simply, Santorum has broader support among the GOP candidates than anyone else.

Look at the numbers from the polls:

* Among men, Santorum and Romney each received 23% of the vote, just one percent behind Ron Paul’s 24%;

* Among women, Santorum and Romney each received 26% of the vote, 6% ahead of Ron Paul’s 20%;

* Among Republicans, Santorum received 28% of the vote, 1% more than Romney, and double the next closest candidates (Gingrich and Paul at 14% each);

* Among Conservatives, Santorum received 27% of the vote, 5% more than Romney and 9% more than Paul;

* Among young voters (17-29), Ron Paul was the runaway winner, with 48%, but Santorum was second at 23%, 10% more than Romney, the next-closest candidate;

* Among voters 30-44, Santorum was the winner with 29%, 1% more than Paul but 10% more than Romney;

* Among voters 45-64, Santorum was just 1% behind Romney (26% to 25%) and 8% ahead of Paul;

* Romney was the clear leader among voters 65+ with 32% of the vote, but Santorum was second with 19%, ahead of Gingrich (17%) and Perry (12%) and Paul (11%);

* Santorum was the clear winner among Evangelical voters, with 32% of the vote to Ron Paul’s 19%. Romney and Gingrich each had 14% and Perry 13%;

* Santorum finished third among non-evangelical voters, behind Romney (38%) and Paul (26%), and third among non-Tea Party voters behind Romney (44%) and Paul (21%);

* Santorum clearly won the Tea Party vote, with 28%. Romney and Paul each received 19%;

* Romney narrowly edged Santorum among college-educated voters (26% to 25%), but Santorum narrowly edged Romney among those without a college degree (23% to 22%).

Santorum’s only areas of huge weakness in Iowa were Independent voters, who went overwhelmingly with Ron Paul, and moderate voters, who gave a combined 74% of their vote to Paul and Romney. Among Independents, though, Santorum received 13% to Romney’s 18%. And Santorum did not finish lower than third in ANY category of voters. He finished third in four categories…but Romney finished third in three. Ron Paul’s lowest finish was fifth, among voters 65+.

So what can we take from this as we look ahead? First, Santorum is unlikely to perform as well in New Hampshire as he did in Iowa. New Hampshire is an area where Romney enjoys considerable support…support that will only be enhanced by John McCain endorsement of Romney there today. McCain has long been a New Hampshire favorite. However, along with Michele Bachmann announcing the end of her candidacy today and Rick Perry expected to do the same, McCain’s endorsement of Romney is actually likely to benefit Santorum. Many Republican voters, and particularly those who were drawn to Bachmann and Perry, voted against Barack Obama more than they voted for John McCain, and they tend to look at Mitt Romney the same way: he is better than Obama, but if there is another option they are likely to go that route. And right now, there are other options. Ron Paul will continue to generate his share of votes, because he appeals to a unique niche of voters and has a very unique message, but he will not be the Republican nominee, and will be unlikely to pick up much support from from the exit of Bachmann and Perry. New Hampshire is Jon Huntsman’s one chance at a decent showing, but it will end there for him. If he doesn’t finish second to Romney it will be a loss, and even if he does finish second, it won’t likely generate any additional success thereafter. Huntsman is the epitome of what many call a RINO, a Republican in Name Only, on many issues, and he simply isn’t going to find broad support. Gingrich has a chance to try to redeem himself in New Hampshire, but he seems more likely to devote his attention to defeating Romney than actually winning himself. And that, too, will only help Santorum.

Looking past New Hampshire, Santorum is likely to perform much better in South Carolina. There is a large number of voters in South Carolina among the constituencies in which Santorum scored well in Iowa, and if he can manage to pull off a finish in the top three in New Hampshire he will be in great shape heading south. Even a top-four finish is unlikely to hurt him.

This is crunch time for Santorum, though…especially at the two debates this weekend. Santorum will no longer be on the sidelines of the debate, and he will have to get more time and attention from the moderators. Gingrich isn’t going to attack him, and Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman will likely continue to direct their more aggressive attacks on Mitt Romney. (Paul already minimized Santorum in his speech to supporters last night, saying he does not have the funds for a national campaign). Santorum needs to stick to his message–repeating the themes of his speech last night–and stay true to his positions. He does have some things in his background that he will need to explain, most notably his past endorsement of Arlen Specter, but he is now primed to be the most likely candidate to emerge as an option to Mitt Romney for any GOP voters who aren’t considering Ron Paul’s candidacy a serious option.

As Santorum said last night, “Game on.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s