They’re Off! Who’s the Winner in Iowa (and Does It Really Matter)?
As I write this, the good people of Iowa are casting the first votes for the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. The candidates are in the starting gate, bucking nervously… the gun fires, the gate opens and the race begins in earnest. They’re off!
A few will stumble out of the gate, and one or more could drop out. Nobody seems to be a clear favorite, which explains why I’m blogging this event live from the confines of my den. It should be a tight and suspense-filled horse race.
But does it matter who wins? After all, Iowa is a strange venue for the start of the race. Overwhelmingly rural and white, it’s not exactly a microcosm of the twenty-first century republic. The flat green expanses of Iowa have given us American Gothic, plenty of corn and hogs, a good (if overrated) creative writing program — and of course Herbert Hoover, one of those virtuous and intelligent men (like both Adamses, Ulysses Grant, William Howard Taft, Jimmy Carter and the current occupant of the White House) who proved to be less-than-stellar presidents.
So what do the Iowans know about choosing a president? They know they’re first, and that’s enough to command our attention.
Now the votes are being tallied. Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are in a virtual dead heat with a quarter of the votes counted. Gingrich, as expected, has faltered badly — at least partly as a result of direct assaults on his candidacy in the form of mudslinging campaign ads. His 13 percent of the vote won’t cut it. Rick Perry, who never recovered from his debating gaffes, is languishing with about 10 percent. Michele Bachmann is even further behind, fading fast into single digits… I think we can color her finished as of tonight. Poor Jon Huntsman, the aberrantly normal Marilyn Munster of this grotesque crew, is barely on the map with one percent of the vote. (He didn’t campaign actively in Iowa… but it doesn’t say a lot for the wisdom of Iowa’s Republican voters that they’d refuse to vote for him on that score alone.)
The big news here is Santorum — a low-key outlier during the overheated debating season, a man few pundits took seriously. And here he is, running neck-and-neck with the well-funded, well-groomed (in both senses of the phrase) Romney. The folks in the Romney camp must be shocked. Even if their man pulls out a victory before the night is over, he’ll look vulnerable. Weak. Beatable.
Despite his pedigree, poise and electability, Romney has had a hard time winning the affections of his party’s faithful. He looks a little too much like one of those mature male models you see in men’s clothing catalogs — ruggedly handsome but ultimately bland and forgettable. An empty suit. His convictions, such as they are, seem to shift with the seasons. He’s not a card-carrying conservative — a blight on his image in our politically polarized era. Sometimes I have to wonder what Romney actually thinks about, other than winning elections. I wonder what he feels. If he unbuttoned his shirt, would we see a panel of flashing lights and grinding gears? As Gertrude Stein might quip, “There’s no there there.”
In his favor, we can say that he’s reasonable, smart and devoid of fanaticism. In short, not the kind of candidate today’s GOP can love.
What if the Iowans actually choose Santorum? The former senator from Pennsylvania is an amiable and earnest fellow, disarmingly modest in deportment (though Churchill might tell us, as he once said of a rival politician, that “he has much to be modest about”).
But don’t let that boyish image fool you. Santorum is a fanatical social conservative who could out-pope the Pope when it comes to issues like abortion and birth control. A Santorum presidency (I can hardly believe I’m typing those words) would turn the United States into a would-be theocracy. (“Would be” because Santorum would still have to contend with Congress and the Supreme Court.) Iowans seem to identify with Santorum’s conservative social agenda. They like him. Even if he finished a close second to Romney, Santorum will have been revived in Iowa. He’ll be a viable contender… at least until the New Hampshire primary.
Half the votes have been counted. Still too close to call at the head of the pack. But the other horses are falling into place. CNN has projected Ron Paul to finsh third — a close third, but still (embarrassingly) behind Santorum.
The crusty old libertarian, outspoken to a fault (a flaw that many find curiously refreshing in a political candidate) had to have been harmed by the recent revelations of borderline racism and sexism in his comments and publications. Give the man credit, though: he promoted his beliefs vigorously and honestly. May we all be blessed with such abundant energy and conviction at his age.
Paul is conceding Iowa on TV now. Upbeat, plucky and as unrepentantly libertarian as ever, the 76-year-old doctor seems energized and even triumphant as he speaks to his loyal followers. His antiwar sentiments draw cheers, as does his defense of the Constitution and Austrian economics. “On to the next stop,” he promises, as his disciples shout his name. See you in New Hampshire, Dr. Paul.
Gingrich is conceding now. The disappointed fourth-place finisher, still smarting from the negative campaign ads that undermined his Iowa race, praises Santorum for running a clean campaign. “I wish I could say the same for the other candidates,” he adds. Positioning himself as a Reagan conservative who helped shape the conservative revolution during the 1980s and ’90s, he derides Romney as an establishment candidate who won’t change a thing in Washington. He’s probably right, even though he tossed a grenade in our direction by dismissing Romney as a mushy moderate. You can tell that Gingrich wants to bring Romney down, that he’s resolved to be the pit bull to Romney’s unwelcome mailman. Feisty and articulate as ever, Gingrich is down but not out.
Michele Bachmann, upbeat as ever despite her sad showing in her native state (a mere five percent of the vote), concedes now with one of those “the system has worked” messages. If Gingrich is the anti-Romney, Bachmann portrays herself as the anti-Obama. “His liberal reign will end, and the American people and its economy will be free,” she tells us. She reels off a defiant litany of conservative rallying points designed to elicit huzzahs and amens from her base. Despite the drubbing, she still insists that she’s the “true” conservative who can bring down Obama’s regime. She finishes by thanking her “marvelous” husband of 33 years, as well as her children, foster children and the rest of her family. She hasn’t surrendered.
It’s Rick Perry’s turn to surrender now. With ten percent of the vote, he’s mired in fifth place — behind Gingrich and ahead of Bachmann. As he thanks his supporters, he rambles in his engagingly folksy and sometimes incoherent manner. Running for president wasn’t his purpose in life, he insists… he’s been doing it because “America is in trouble.” We agree. But he points to Texas as an example of how we can “take America forward.” Questionable. He lavishes praise on the American servicemen he’s come to know, and you can see that he means it. Unlike Bachmann, he seems uncertain about his future prospects in the 2012 race.
Meanwhile, Santorum and Romney are still locked in a virtual tie for first — separated by just 37 votes as of 11 p.m. Central time. To judge by the map of Iowa, almost uniformly shaded county-for-county in the Santorum camp, you’d think the upstart Pennsylvanian would be mopping the floor with the former Massachusetts governor. But look more closely and you’ll see that Romney is running ahead in the urban areas; the windswept, churchgoing hinterland is Santorum’s domain.
Santorum is addressing his followers now, though he hasn’t been declared the winner or the loser. He gives thanks to his wife, God and the people of Iowa (in that order). He speaks movingly of his grandfather, an immgrant from Mussolini’s Italy, who worked in the mines of western Pennsylvania until he was 72 and used his big, gnarled hands to give his family freedom. Give the Rickster credit: he’s a natural, sincere, good-humored and engaging speaker. He extols hard work and individual effort, yet he’s critical of the economic purists who would ignore the plight of those who have been hit hard by the recession. He lambastes the president, of course, and he thanks God for the ordinary folks who still cling to their Bible. They’re his people, and they deserve a candidate who represents them. I’m just not sure if the majority of Americans are his people.
Romney’s at bat now. Trailing by a microscopic five votes as he begins, the candidate from Central Casting salutes rivals Santorum and Paul for their strong showings, then launches into a well-modulated tirade against Obama and his “failed presidency.” He announces that it’s time for someone with private-sector experience to lead us out of our economic morass, and he’s determined to make America the most attractive place in the world for “job-creators.” Number one on his hit list: Obamacare (which of course was patterned after Romneycare).
As if to shun his wishy-washy middle-of-the-road reputation, he unabashedly proclaims America a “merit society.” No leveling, no redistribution of wealth. (Romney’s gargantuan bank account is safe for now.) All in all, a competent boiler-plate speech, as one would expect from a competent boiler-plate candidate. Now it’s on to New Hampshire. Romney looks stoked; those gears are whirring.
And now it’s time for The New Moderate to call it a night. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a photo finish. Nobody knows who will wind up in the winner’s circle, even with 99 percent of the precincts counted. At this point it hardly matters who finishes first. Romney and Santorum have both proven themselves as contenders.
Santorum has won the moral victory regardless of the outcome. (Santorum! Who’d have thunk it?) He’s gained stature tonight. He has heart, he has a refreshingly guileless air about him (even if he lacks presidential gravitas), and he sings to the traditional religious conservative base.
The only problem is that New Hampshire isn’t an especially religious state. Former GOP nominee John McCain has just announced that he’ll endorse Romney. The Massachusetts tycoon is already well-established in the “Live Free or Die” state. He’s more likely to win the votes of moderates, and the conservatives certainly won’t leap into the Obama camp during the general election. Advantage: Romney. But keep your eye on that plucky kid from Pennsylvania.
Postscript: Romney pulled ahead at the last minute and won, as expected — by a grand total of eight votes. It was the narrowest margin of victory in the history of state caucuses and primaries. (Obama won Guam by seven votes, but that’s a considerably larger percentage of the voters on that minuscule Pacific isle.)
Post-Postscript: It seems that the Rickster may have pulled off a victory (albeit an extremely slim one) after all. The latest count is Santorum by 34 votes. Officials have essentially thrown up their hands, confessing that the true winner might never be known. I say we call it a draw and move on.