Muddle. That is what the Iowa caucuses produced last night. Indeed, the only thing that is really clear is that a majority of Republican voters really, really do not want to back Mitt Romney.
A plurality of the anti-Romney vote went to Rick Santorum, even though the typical Iowa voter knew next to nothing about him. On one of the channels, they had a Google executive who noted the steep increase in hits for Santorum in the past week, which only means that the voters learned about Santorum what Santorum wanted them to know. (They also learned about a very vulgar trick played on Santorum some years ago – do not google the man’s name with children in the room.) There were next to no anti-Santorum ads from the other candidates. And, it is still hard to imagine Santorum gaining traction because, among other things, he is kinda boring.
Ron Paul is sui generis and Iowa will likely prove to be his best showing. He has nowhere to go but it will be curious to see if any of the other candidates risk alienating his supporters by going after him. And, you can bet Team Obama will be looking to see if Paul’s supporters intend to sit on their hands come November.
Newt Gingrich has decided to do what he should have done a month ago: Go after Romney. The way to appear as the conservative alternative to Romney is to make that case to the voters and Gingrich has indicated that he is going to come out of Iowa swinging. There is a debate coming up Saturday night which gives Gingrich a chance to shine without spending any money, distinguish himself from Perry whose debate skills are not up to par, and to make the case that he has the chops to take on Obama in a way Santorum doesn’t. And while Gingrich was pummeled with negative ads in Iowa, the good people of South Carolina have not seen any of that yet.
Hard to know what Rick Perry will do. He had planned to head straight to South Carolina last night but after only pulling in ten percent of the vote is reconsidering whether and how to continue. He is reported to still have $3 million in the bank, which can keep him in the race through South Carolina but, unlike Gingrich, it is difficult to see what kind of event, like a successful debate performance, would lift his candidacy.
Michele Bachmann’s quest for the White House is now over and look for her votes to go to Santorum or Perry on the strength of their family values themes and hyper-religiosity.
Romney has to hope as many conservatives stay in the race as long as possible, dividing the conservative base and allowing him to squeak through, as he did last night, with 25 or 26% of the vote. But, the candidates will drop out and at a certain time, Romney will face the candidate the conservative base has crowned the most plausible un-Romney in the race. Depending on how quickly that happens, and whether the last man standing is Santorum or Gingrich, this could go on for a very long time.