In a tight race that had the top two contenders trailing each other by small margins all night, Mitt Romney won Tuesday’s Iowa Caucus. Romney secured a narrow victory of eight votes over Rick Santorum and picked up 13 delegates to the Republican National Convention. Ron Paul placed third, followed by Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann.
Perry announced he was returning to Texas to “reassess his campaign” and Bachmann announced she was officially suspending hers. Gingrich devoted his concession speech to attacking Mitt Romney and Ron Paul touted his support among moderates leading into the New Hampshire primary.
Despite the fact that he was heavily outspent by Mitt Romney, Santorum won 12 delegates, likely by tailoring his message to the electorate and by speaking directly with Iowa voters in a series of Town Hall meetings. His campaign was hoping that a big enough win in the Iowa Caucus would establish Santorum as the frontrunner and shelve any concerns about his “electability.” He won’t be able to maintain this fiction for very much longer.
Santorum has a week until the primary in New Hampshire, the state where two of the GOP’s fringe candidates, Jon Huntsman and Buddy Roemer, have focused all of their energy. Santorum’s “Google problem,” lack of national organization, and extreme rhetoric are not going to resonate with New England voters. In Iowa he had time to play the slow, long game, remaking himself to be the perfect candidate for the Hawkeye State.
He won’t have this advantage in New Hampshire. He’ll be facing a fresh set of voters who will have spent the last week being debriefed on his history of inflammatory hate speech, the sort of hardline fundamentalist dogma that prompted Dan Savage to turn his name into a sexual neologism. While this publicity nightmare didn’t prevent Santorum from placing second in a state caucus, it has severely hindered his ability to raise money and attract national support, making him little more than a distraction in New Hampshire.
New Hampshire will be a race between electability and ideology. Perry, Paul, Gingrich and Santorum are ideology candidates. Each has worked hard to distinguish themselves as the true anti-establishment conservative, paring down their particular brand of conservatism to a series of talking points. Rick Perry is the "crime and punishment" candidate: his execution record as governor makes him attractive to voters who favor aggressive, punitive foreign and domestic policy. Ron Paul is the “reform” candidate: he’s anti-war, anti-drug war, and anti-choice and his message resonates with some liberals and moderates. Santorum is the “family values” candidate: he’s anti-gay, believes in outlawing contraception, and has indicated he would annul gay marriages by legislative fiat.
After yesterday’s poor showing, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are both zombie candidates, but they can still drain support from each other and the other longshot candidates. Each of them will receive a slice of the voters who purposely ignore the “horse race” aspect of the election and vote for the candidate that most stringently adheres to their personal beliefs.
Romney and Paul are the most electable candidates in New Hampshire — by a wide margin. Mitt Romney’s exit polls from Iowa indicate that those who voted for him did so because they believe he has a shot at unseating President Obama in November. Romney and Paul will carry the lion’s share of the voters, being the only candidates with coordinated, established political operations in the state.
After the New Hampshire primary the media’s attention will narrow to two possible candidates: Ron Paul or Mitt Romney. Rick Perry will go back to his governorship, Gingrich will go back to touring the world with his third wife and Santorum will be another cautionary tale about taking the results of the Iowa Caucus too seriously.