The first result that appears to have been decided in the Iowa caucus is that Michele Bachmann has finished sixth with only Jon Huntsman (who didn’t compete in the state) behind her. That Bachmann should have fallen so far so quickly says a lot about what a tough game presidential politics can be. Only five months ago, most pundits assumed Bachmann would be the leader in Iowa. Her victory in the Ames Straw Poll in August was purely symbolic, but at the time, she looked to have the social conservative and Tea Party vote in her pocket. But she never recovered from the entrance of Rick Perry on that very same day, and a few goofy comments about Texas vaccinations later, she was sent back to the second tier.
Bachmann’s demise shows that although the primary/caucus system can seem like a circus, it does perform a vital service in the way it vets candidates and rejects those who are unworthy of national attention. Bachmann is a passionate ideologue, but she never made a case for herself as a potential president. In the end, even those who shared her strong beliefs saw her as not at the same level as a more experienced Rick Santorum or even Rick Perry. Bachmann claims to be willing to go on and fight it out in other states, but she is kidding herself if she doesn’t realize her quest is finished.
With just one day to go before the Iowa Republican caucus, the latest polls have led most observers to expect that there will be two big winners: Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. But even if that turns out to be true, the big question that needs to be answered Tuesday night is whether or not Iowa will start the process of winnowing the GOP field.
It is on that uncertainty the fate of the leaders may hinge. If we assume Santorum does finish strong or even win the caucus outright by, in effect, winning the mini-primary of evangelical and social conservative voters over rivals Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, his ability to mount an effective challenge to Romney will in no small measure depend on the willingness of those two to hang on in the race. Romney has benefited from the inability of conservatives to conclusively settle on a single “not Romney” candidate and looks to be in a strong position to cruise to the nomination no matter what the others do. If Bachmann and/or Perry were to quickly exit after poor showings, it might give Santorum a far better chance to give Romney a run for his money.
Two months ago, just as Herman Cain’s campaign was about to start to unravel, I wrote that perhaps it was Rick Santorum’s turn for a surge. I was, of course, wrong. It was Newt Gingrich’s turn back at the end of October and the beginning of November to take off and to be, at least for a few weeks, something of a frontrunner. But with only days to go before voters in Iowa cast the first actual votes of the caucus/primary season, it looks like Santorum’s moment has arrived. A CNN/Time/ORC poll released on Wednesday shows Santorum surging ahead of his competitors for the social conservative vote into third place among likely caucus goers with 16 percent.
Santorum’s timing is impeccable. With Gingrich collapsing (the poll shows him fading to fourth place with only 14 percent, which is down from 33 percent less than a month ago) and Michele Bachmann’s campaign in chaos as her Iowa chairman defected to Ron Paul yesterday, the former Pennsylvania senator looks to be in excellent shape to win what he called the “conservative primary” over Bachmann and Rick Perry.
Many Republicans have spent the last several months grousing that they don’t like the choices available to them in their party’s presidential contest. But if the polls are correct, it may be that one core GOP constituency has a completely different problem: they have too many appealing choices.
The ability of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum to stay in the race though all are trailing badly in both polls of likely Iowa caucus-goers and national surveys is that each has managed to hold onto a loyal cadre of social conservatives. They are very different in their backgrounds, personalities and governing styles. But they share a devotion to social issues such as opposition to abortion, and the success of their candidacies depend on their ability to capture the lion’s share of the evangelical voters who propelled Mike Huckabee to an upset win in Iowa four years ago. They also share a problem: with all three hanging on, it is becoming increasingly apparent they will cancel each other out and ensure the victory of a Republican who doesn’t share their social passions.
The latest survey of Iowa Republican caucus goers confirms the rapid decline in Newt Gingrich’s fortunes. A Rasmussen poll conducted Monday and published today shows Mitt Romney vaulting into the lead with 25 percent, Ron Paul in second with 20 percent, and Newt Gingrich lagging behind in third with 17 percent.
There are a few notable elements about this poll. First is the continuation of Gingrich’s slide which shows him with only about half as much support as he had just about a month ago in Iowa. Second are the steady gains that both Romney and Paul have made with each advancing 2 points in the last week. Third is the fact that for the first time, Rick Santorum is finally gaining some traction in Iowa and most specifically passing Michele Bachmann. But last and perhaps most significant is the fact that Romney is, according to Rasmussen, leading among those voters who “consider themselves Republicans,” while Paul is ahead among non-Republicans likely to participate in the caucus. That bodes well for the former Massachusetts governor and illustrates again how implausible Paul’s hopes for the nomination really are.
I think Alana is right when she says the main beneficiary of Newt Gingrich’s free-fall in Iowa will be Mitt Romney. In fact, as I wrote earlier today, any outcome in the first caucus other than a Gingrich victory plays into Romney’s hands. Even if a dark horse candidate like Ron Paul takes the state or one of the second-tier conservatives sneaks into the winner’s circle, the net effect will be to destroy the former Speaker’s hopes for the nomination. That will leave Romney in effect the only mainstream candidate left standing and, though his path will not necessarily be easy, it would then be hard to imagine anyone else becoming the nominee.
But though the various polls of likely caucus-goers are showing Paul, Gingrich and Romney as the only potential winners, a word of caution is needed. Anyone who thinks this isn’t a volatile race whose outlines can change radically from week to week hasn’t been paying attention. It also needs to be pointed out that Tea Partiers and social conservatives who abandon a sinking Gingrich in the next two weeks have two other logical candidates they could turn to: Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. That’s why the betting here is that one of those two will wind up edging into the top three or better in Iowa by the time the caucus is finished.
A few days ago, Newt Gingrich looked to be rolling to the nomination, and Mitt Romney seemed headed for an inevitable loss. But the last debate before the Iowa caucus ended with the former Speaker headed back to the pack. Gingrich had some strong moments in Sioux City, but the beating he took on his consulting work for Freddie Mac from Michele Bachmann brought into focus the questions about his record that many Republicans have been ignoring in recent weeks.
Mitt Romney recovered from his poor performance last Saturday and was back to the steady, confident debater he was earlier in the campaign. But the story was not so much his strong showing as it was the ability of Bachmann and even Rick Perry to score some points. If, as today’s Rasmussen poll indicates, voters are starting to have second thoughts about Gingrich’s ability to beat President Obama, then the ability of the second-tier conservatives to eat into the former Speaker’s support may be crucial in deciding the outcome of the caucus next month. Though Ron Paul, the candidate who seemed in the best position to threaten Gingrich’s lead, had a terrible night as he was flayed by Bachmann for his irresponsible support for Iran, the net result of the field evening out in this manner is to Romney’s advantage.
Yesterday’s Quinnipiac poll showing Michele Bachmann at 15 percent—only ten points behind Mitt Romney—may not have been surprising, but it has changed the dynamic. What was once the race between Not Romney and Not Palin has become Not Romney vs. Not Bachmann.
Conservative grassroots would love to have a serious challenger to Romney. Ironically, however, their search helps solidify Romney’s early lead because they can’t seem to settle on one that could peel off any of Romney’s establishment support.